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Brandon High graduate heard explosions near Paris soccer stadium, saw chaos outside

Cameron Powell, 25, poses before the start of the France/Allemagne soccer game in the French national stadium. The Brandon High School graduate was witness to bombings near the stadium that were part of a string of terrorist attacks Friday night that killed at least 127 people. [Photo provided by Powell]
Cameron Powell, 25, poses before the start of the France/Allemagne soccer game in the French national stadium. The Brandon High School graduate was witness to bombings near the stadium that were part of a string of terrorist attacks Friday night that killed at least 127 people. [Photo provided by Powell]
Published Nov. 14, 2015

For Cameron Powell, the soccer game started like any other he'd been to.

He and a friend got beers and food, then headed to their seats at the Paris stadium where a match was scheduled Friday night between France and Germany.

About 15 minutes into the game, he felt the first explosion.

"It felt like it shook me to the bone," the Brandon High School and University of Florida graduate said Saturday from his hotel about five miles from the stadium.

Powell, 25, was witness to bombings near the national stadium that were part of a string of terrorist attacks Friday night that killed at least 129 people and injured 352 more. The Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility for the violence, according to several reports.

A few minutes after the first explosion, Powell said the stadium shook from another that he said felt smaller but closer. Spectators and security guards remained calm, so he thought it may have been a flare or some other kind of game entertainment.

"We were physically shaking but telling ourselves it was okay," said Powell, who was in Paris for his job as an account manager for Live Nation Entertainment.

Still, he checked his phone for news reports just in case. About 70 minutes into the game, a BBC story popped up. The headline said two bombs had gone off at the stadium and that there was a shooting downtown.

Powell and his friend decided to leave. They searched for an exit that wasn't closed off and eventually found a stairwell that emptied onto the plaza outside, he said.

The scene there was chaotic. The fence around the stadium was roped off with police tape, Powell said. Cops weren't letting anyone out. News crews bustled around with TV cameras.

After about five minutes, officers opened the gates. Powell and his friend tried unsuccessfully to find a cab. Police warned against taking the metro, so Powell and his friend began the 80-minute trek back to the apartment on foot. He could still hear cheers from the soccer game inside.

Along the way, they passed hordes of police officers, ambulances zooming by and SWAT teams with military gear posted up at corners.

After a few miles, they spotted a group leaving a cab and sprinted over to get inside. The cab dropped off his friend at the apartment where he was staying and, after getting blocked on numerous routes, dropped Powell back at his hotel.

In his room, he double-locked the door and stacked end tables in front of it.

After texting friends and family that he was safe and ordering room service, Powell tried to sleep despite the sirens going off outside. He kept the TV off, too shaken up to watch the news.

"I'm just trying to figure out my next steps and figure out the safest way to go about everything," said Powell, who plans to fly back Monday to his home in Atlanta.

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Friday's attacks came less than a year after a three-day streak of violence in January that began with a massacre at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. A branch of Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the massacre.

"I think everybody is kind of tired of it here," Powell said. "That's a lot for one country to take."

Over a video chat Saturday, Powell held up his ticket to the match along with a souvenir scarf he bought before the game to remember the evening. But on the morning after, he said, "I still feel like I haven't processed it all."

•••

On any other Friday night, Tyler Jade O'Banion and Amanda Paige Inman would have been out with friends in downtown Paris.

But this week, O'Banion, a Tampa native, and Inman, from Orlando, decided to stay in.

In the middle of dinner with her host family, O'Banion, who is working in suburban Paris as an au pair, received a message from a friend on the photo and video messaging app Snapchat saying there was a shooting and checking to see if she was okay.

O'Banion, 23, didn't think much of it. But then the text messages and phone calls started to roll in.

They turned on the news. Images from the bombings, shootings and hostage situation flashed on the screen. At the time, O'Banion thought they were isolated incidents, she said Saturday from her home about three miles from the area where the attacks happened.

The death toll was right around 20 when they first tuned in. But she and her host family watched it rise: 40, 60, 80 ...

"It kept rising and got scarier and scarier at that point," she said. Her host family turned the TV on and off, wanting to stay updated but terrified of what they might see.

Meanwhile, Inman, also an au pair, was at home sleeping. Like O'Banion, she first got word of the attacks from text messages and phone calls. She said Saturday she ended up staying up until 6 a.m. Parisian time reassuring friends and family in the states that she was still safe while still trying to take in the chaos herself.

"I guess it didn't really feel like it was happening," Inman, 22, said. "It just felt like some abstract concept."

The rest of their friend group had also decided to stay in, a fortunate coincidence, the women said.

"It was really just per chance," O'Banion said.

•••

Chris McLaughlin planned a lavish Parisian vacation to see U2 with his girlfriend, Brandi Smith. Unbeknownst to her, the trip would start with a marriage proposal on Thursday. Elated, she said yes.

The couple, both 42 and from Lakeland, would go on to celebrate their engagement atop the Eiffel Tower with what they expected to be a picturesque dinner Friday evening.

That was until McLaughlin looked out the window next his table and saw chaos in the streets of Paris.

"We were sitting there, having a wonderful meal, and we saw police car, after police car, after police car pouring into the streets," he said.

Shortly after everyone's phones in the restaurant started to buzz and beep — a mix of breaking news alerts and concerned calls from family.

A table of Americans without a window seat nearby McLaughlin and his fiance asked what was going on.

"We don't know, but it looks like there's been a bombing in Paris," he responded.

He said the restaurant went quiet. He felt like the tower could be another terrorist target, so he called the driver he'd already had scheduled for the weekend to immediately take the couple back to their nearby hotel.

Others struggled to find transportation, McLaughlin said. He heard people panicked, saying Uber wasn't working.

Outside the tower, which bustled with tourists when the couple arrived for dinner, was by then nearly deserted.

"Everyone had just fled," he said. "At that point, it was surreal."

They spent the night using social media to tell loved ones they were safe and their phones to check on the latest news.

On Saturday, with the U2 concert postponed, the couple walked the streets of a somber Paris, where McLaughlin said most businesses were closed and security high. But McLaughlin said he's also seen the city's pride.

The two were able to find a place open to eat dinner, and as they walked out, someone yelled "Vive la Paris!" as others cheered in response.

•••

Joel and Amy Davis of Tampa were in France for the wedding of a longtime friend. Hours before the attacks, they were at the Eiffel Tower.

Afterward, they couldn't return to their hotel, which Davis wrote on Instagram was "in the center of the attacks." Instead, they camped out on a friend's apartment floor.

"We are by far the least of the people (affected) by this tragedy, but it feels so real to be in such close proximity," Joel Davis wrote on Instagram Saturday.

Joel is a well-known face in Tampa. He's a musician who performs under the name Fistful and is the owner of Commune + Co., which sells pressure-brewed coffee at pop-up events and daily in downtown Tampa. They were due to return to Tampa via London on Monday.

"We don't feel unsafe, but we don't think it's wise to continue staying in our hotel in Republique," Joel wrote. "The US consulate and local authorities are still advising everyone to stay indoors so we're just trying to be wise about it all."

A few hours after his original Instagram update, Davis posted another photo from Place de la Republique, "1 block from our hotel and a few blocks from the concert hall where last night's hostage situation and brutal killings took place.

"People are beginning to gather and place candles, flowers and signs as memorial. The area is very heavily patrolled by French military. We are packing our luggage now and heading back to the other side of the city. So much pain, but so much love in the air. It is tense, but there is life. The paper banner up high reads 'J'ETRE HUMAIN' – 'Human Being.' "