Mohamed Amghar saved lives during the Paris attacks, struggles to move on
AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France -- In a working-class neighborhood far from any soccer parties or famous Parisian monuments, an American citizen named Mohamed Amghar spends most of his time inside his apartment, where he feels safe. He is the most famous unknown man in France: an anonymous security guard who helped stop a suicide bomber from entering Stade de France through Gate H last November. The idea of him is famous, actually, since nobody except the police even knew he existed. The image of a ticket taker saving lives captivated the nation. From his apartment, he watched on TV as another guard named Salim Toorabally, who had stopped a terrorist at Gate L, became a French hero and multicultural avatar: the Muslim who saved lives. Amghar, 47 and also Muslim, remained a public mystery, which suited him just fine. The first and only news report ran less than a month ago, and on a regional television station that asked him a dozen times before he agreed.
"I did my job," he says simply, sitting at his dining table with the medal the French government gave him for his actions. A spokesman for the Minister of the Interior said the nation honored Amghar because he "bravely defended the stadium and saved the lives of people who were inside."
This is Mohamed's second interview, which his psychologist says is a good idea. He needs to talk about what happened. Tonight, he'll be watching the opening match of the Euros on his television, which hangs on the wall with a big photo of Times Square. A decade ago, he worked nearby at New York's Hotel Carter, a Moroccan immigrant who rode the N train and learned the language -- his first English phrase, which he said over and over at night to practice, was "I am looking for job" -- and eventually he earned a green card and married an American. After a divorce, he remarried a French woman, which is how he ended up in Paris, but he still thinks a lot about his time in the U.S.
"I'm proud to be an American," he says.
He lived in Astoria, Queens, on 9/11 and remembers the smoke rising above lower Manhattan. As this soccer tournament begins, Paris feels to him now a lot like New York felt in 2001, wounded and changed, full of anxiety: always subconsciously waiting for the next attack.
HE SPREADS A STACK of photos and documents on the table.
Some show where the construction hexagon nuts from the suicide bomb tore open his arm and back, five altogether, while others show the bruises those wounds left. One close-up reveals the model number: 181. A picture shows the terrorist's blood and viscera all over his jeans -- the bomber detonated his shoddily constructed device about 10 yards from Amghar -- and stacks of paper detail his hospital stay and his interviews with the French police and the FBI.
Officers from both agencies told him he was lucky to be alive.
He'd been one of three ticket checkers at Gate H, working a six-hour shift for about $60. His job was to scan bar codes, and if his screen showed the letter V, for "valide," he let them inside to watch the game. As kickoff approached, four or five young men tried to get in with tickets his screen showed as not valid, and he turned them away. A few hung around to his right, and he didn't pay them much attention.
At 9 p.m., the security bosses told the guards to stop admitting fans. They asked Amghar to help a colleague open up some fences outside the main gates, to allow easier exit for people once the match ended. Seven minutes later, he heard a boom, about 100 yards away: the first suicide bomber. The explosion sounded like fireworks.
"Like the Fourth of July," he says.
About 10 minutes passed. He remembers looking at three or four of those young men who'd been denied access, and just as he turned back toward the fence, the terrorist detonated his bomb, about 10 yards away, sending hot shrapnel flying. He fell down and got up, running away. Everyone panicked. Two cops ran past him. After three or four steps, he felt something wet inside his clothes and when he felt his head, his hand came back red, the blood sticky and the human flesh oily. That's one of many details he can't forget. He grabbed a man and asked him to check the back of his head. Then he wandered, in shock, seeing visions of his father, who'd died 20 years before, and of his own 6- and 8-year-old daughters who'd grow up without a dad. In the chaos, he forgot where he'd parked his car, so he searched for a half hour or more until he found it, 50 feet from Gate H.
He drove himself to the hospital. On the drive, he called his brother, who also lives in Paris.
"If I die, please bury me next to my father in Casablanca," he told him.
His brother started to cry, asking what had happened.
"Turn on the TV," Amghar told him, and his brother called back every minute until Mohamed arrived at the hospital. The paramedics couldn't believe he'd driven himself and they wheeled him inside, where a team of doctors started to work. He was the first patient to arrive. The next morning, Amghar returned to his apartment, terrified of everything, locking the door.
"I didn't trust anybody," he says. "Maybe this is the end of France."
But he kept thinking about the bloody jacket, jeans and sneakers, covered in the terrorist's DNA. "Around 9 p.m., I talk to myself," he says, "'You gotta do something.' I gotta do something for the nation, you know."
He took a garbage bag with the clothes to his local police station.
The cops sent him away.
The next morning, a different officer called and apologized, and Amghar took the evidence down to the main crime lab office, where officers thanked him and got him a coffee and interviewed him for six straight hours. They kept the clothes and he went back home.
AMGHAR STRUGGLES TO SLEEP now. Every two hours, he wakes up, replaying the attack in his mind. There are so many questions. What if he hadn't turned at the last moment? What if the shrapnel had hit him a foot higher? Why had a terrorist been so stupid to plan an attack but forget to buy a real ticket? Why would a Muslim think God wanted murder? "It's bulls---," he says, "I read the Quran. There's no mention of killing to go to paradise. They are talking bulls---. They lie to them. They brainwash them."
All night, his mind churns. In the first few weeks afterward, he even started to imagine that maybe he'd actually died and was now a ghost, walking the streets of Paris. Sometimes, he'd bump into people on purpose just to hear them say something and prove he really existed. Inside, he knew that was crazy, so he talked to a counselor. Time and talking, he's been told, are the only two medicines that will work.
He's scared of groups of people. Two days ago, on Wednesday, he looked out his window down at the street below. Crowds moved through the market set up on the sidewalk, some vendors selling 5-euro shoes, others selling fresh leeks and tomatoes and slicing pieces of melon with a sharp knife. Many of the women wore headscarves, and nearby graffiti says "Welcome to 93." This is the famous, or infamous, Neuf-Trois, named after the local postal code, which has become shorthand for housing-project violence and immigrant unrest -- Paris' Compton, with a similar range of images and misconceptions that name evokes. The neighborhood was home to one of the men who killed 89 people at the Bataclan, but also to Amghar, who saved as many across town.
He's proud of his medal from France with the red, white and blue ribbon, although it came as a surprise to his two daughters. They don't know what happened to him; they live with their mother, and he decided to keep his injuries to himself. Then they saw his award and asked why he'd gotten it. For winning a soccer tournament, he lied, and they believed him, because they're 6 and 8. That made him happy. For a little while longer, he can keep them safe, allowing them to live in a world where people don't want to blow up fathers of little girls.
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.