IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Historic Bataclan terror attack trial begins in Paris

"It’s never really left the front of my mind," one survivor said. "It’s omnipresent for me."
Get more newsLiveon

PARIS — Almost six years after the deadliest attack on French soil since World War II killed 130 people and injured 416 others, the largest criminal trial in the nation's history opened Wednesday, with more than 2,000 lawyers, witnesses and survivors of the terror spree.

Behind the gilded gates of the historic Palais de Justice in the heart of Paris in a specially designed courtroom, French national Salah Abdeslam and others sat in a bulletproof defendant’s box.

Police believe Abdeslam, 31, was the only attacker to survive Nov. 13, 2015, when nine gunmen and suicide bombers struck bars and restaurants, the Bataclan concert hall and the Stade de France sports stadium. French police say a suicide belt belonging to him was found unexploded after the attacks.

FILE PHOTO: French fire brigade members aid an injured individual near the Bataclan concert hall following fatal shootings in Paris, France
Firemen aid an injured individual near the Bataclan concert hall after the November 2015 attacks.Christian Hartmann / Reuters file

Abdeslam, whose brother was among the suicide bombers, has refused to speak to investigators about the attack.

He appeared in court wearing a black short-sleeved shirt, black trousers and sporting a long black beard.

Asked by the presiding judge, Jean-Louis Peries, to identify himself, Abdeslam said that the only divine being was Allah and that the Prophet Muhammad was his messenger. Asked to state his profession, he declared he was "a fighter for Islamic State," in a reference to the Islamic State terror group.

Nineteen other suspects are accused of helping provide guns and cars or of playing a role in organizing the largest ISIS attack in Europe. Six will be tried in absentia, including five who are presumed dead.

‘The truth is justice’

Involving some 330 lawyers and over 1,800 plaintiffs, the trial scheduled to last until May is costing the French government millions. For the survivors, it will be their first opportunity to face down their attackers.

American Helen Wilson, 55, from Los Angeles, was at the Bataclan the night of the attack with her boyfriend, Nick Alexander. Wilson was shot in both legs. Alexander was shot in the stomach and died in her arms as the gunmen continued their massacre.

She said she was testifying despite years of post-traumatic stress disorder, recurring nightmares and severe bouts of depression.

"I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure my voice is heard and that his voice is heard and that all of those other people that are no longer with us are heard through me," Wilson told NBC News during a recent interview. "This is part of my job. I don’t believe this is all I have to do in the universe, but this is a big part of it."

People comfort each other near the Bataclan concert hall in central Paris, on November 14, 2015.Francois Guillot / AFP via Getty Images file

At the site of the attacks in Paris, there are signs that the city has moved on.

In the last week, a theater troupe and drag queens at the Bataclan, where 90 died in the terror attacks, laughed outside the theater entrance. Patrons packed the terraces of La Bonne Bière café sipping their café crème in the sunshine on a warm late summer day.

At the Stade de France, site of two suicide bombings the night of the attacks, large billboards advertised upcoming musical events.

But despite the city’s apparent recovery, scores of victims, survivors, families and first responders are still coping with the fallout from their collective nightmare.

Lawyer Samia Maktouf, 57, represents 40 survivors and victims’ families. She said many are not getting the support they need and, worse, must constantly prove to the French government that the events of that night continue to affect their daily lives and ability to function.

Many Dead After Multiple Shootings In Paris
A survivor sits on a bus after terrorists attacked the Bataclan concert hall on November 13, 2015 in Paris.Antoine Antoniol / Getty Images file

Many are still seeking answers about the attackers, their plan, their accomplices and about the actions of French police that evening.

"The truth is justice, and to understand what happened on the 13th of November 2015 is important," Maktouf said.

‘Deep inside my soul’

In the small, one-bedroom Parisian apartment Wilson shares with her adopted cats, pictures of her late boyfriend cover her refrigerator.

Wilson, who struggled through years of heavy alcohol and drug use after the attacks, is now sober, sees a therapist twice a week and uses meditation to cope with the physical and emotional scars.

The bullets from the AK-47s tore away muscle tissue in her legs and left her with nerve damage and chronic pain. "They’re quite painful, but I have a different relationship with pain today than I did before," she said.

Wilson says she has no illusions that this trial will put her demons to rest.

A specially built courtroom for the trial of 20 men accused in the 2015 Paris attacks.Francois Mori / AP

"It’s never really left the front of my mind to be honest, it’s omnipresent for me. I still live it every day. And I have to consciously take myself to another place in my brain and in my heart to not break down and cry all day long," she said. But she said as strange as it seems, the horrific night of Nov. 13 changed her for the better.

"It’s led me to really look at myself and go deep inside my soul," she said, "I’m stronger than ever, even though some days I don’t feel like I am."