As French authorities stitched together the details of what transpired during last week’s days of terror, a cast of villains and heroes emerged. There were the French police officers who died during the attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the female officer an Islamist militant gunned down in southern Paris. Then there was the owner of a printing plant who distracted gunmen while a 26-year-old colleague escaped. And finally — perhaps most incredibly — there’s the Malian Muslim.
On Friday afternoon, as a string of terror attacks roiled France, 24-year-old Mali citizen Lassana Bathily was at work in the underground stockroom of a kosher market named Hyper Cacher near the Porte de Vincennes in eastern Paris. He heard gunman Amedy Coulibaly enter the store and open fire, killing four customers, it was later learned. Then, according to witnesses interviewed by the Associated Press and accounts in French media, Bathily ushered more than a dozen customers downstairs. He then killed the lights and turned off the stockroom’s freezer.
“We were locked in there,” the Muslim man told French channel BFMTV, as the New York Times reported. “I told them to calm down, not make any noise, or else if he hears that we’re there, he can come down and kill us.”
So the customers shivered inside the freezer for hours. “We’re very afraid, and we’re very cold,” one woman told a friend in a phone call that evening around 5 p.m., reported The Washington Post’s Griff Witte. “Tell the police to hurry.”
But someone had to get word to the police. The shop was barricaded with metal blinds, and Coulibaly bragged to cops he had already killed four people and was planning on shooting more. So Bathily came up with a plan. He said they could get out through a fire escape to speak to police. According to Bathily, he asked others to come with him, but they declined, worried the gunman would hear them.
Bathily slipped out of the basement and walked out of the building to meet police, who initially thought he was perhaps an accomplice. They ordered him to lie down and put his hands behind his head. The moment’s drama was captured by French television station Europe 1:
Bathily spent the next 90 minutes in cuffs before he managed to convince authorities he was who he said he was. He told the cops he wasn’t alone. There were more than a dozen other hostages locked inside the store’s freezer. And what’s more, he said, he had something that could help French forces break into the kosher mart: a key to unlock the supermarket’s metal blinds. That key and information about the store’s layout he provided to police would prove invaluable, police officials told the Associated Press. They could barge through the market’s front door without putting the hostages in more danger, he told them.
And that’s exactly what the police did, soon killing the gunman.
Following the melee, praise for the Malian Muslim’s heroics came from all quarters. “They were saved thanks to the Muslim employee of the supermarket,” Albert Guigui, the chief rabbi of Brussels and a relative of one of the hostages, told the Sunday Times. “He pushed them towards the back of the shop and down the cellar. It’s thanks to him that they were saved.” One of Bathily’s former co-workers got the newly minted hero on the phone an hour after the hostage crisis ended, and was in awe of his friend. “The guy was so courageous,” Mohammed Amine, 33, told the Associated Press.
Bathily was more taciturn about what he did. When the hostages finally emerged from the basement, he told French media, they thanked him. “They congratulated me,” the New York Times quoted him saying. “They said, ‘Really, thanks for thinking of all these ideas.’ I said, ‘It’s nothing. It’s life.’ ”