ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Shot in the arm and slumped behind a table, Francois al-Asmar played dead as the gunman walked through the exclusive Istanbul nightclub shooting the wounded as they lay on the ground.
Like most of the 39 people killed at a New Year’s party in Reina, a hang-out for the Turkish jet set and moneyed foreigners, the Lebanese radio and TV graduate was a visitor to Istanbul, enjoying a city reputed in the Middle East for its diversity and tolerance.
“He shot one shot, so we thought - I thought - it was some angry or drunk man ... But a few seconds later, we heard a machine gun,” Asmar told Reuters from his hospital bed.
“I was hiding behind the table, sitting on the floor, but my shoulder must have been exposed. He was shooting us on the floor ... I acted dead so he didn’t keep shooting me,” he said.
The lone gunman, still at large, shot dead a police officer and a civilian at the door before walking in and opening fire at random. Witnesses said he shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest). Islamic State claimed responsibility.
“As soon as he entered the club he started firing and he didn’t stop. He fired non-stop for 20 minutes at least,” said Younis Turk, a French citizen of Turkish origin.
“We thought that there were several of them because it just didn’t stop. And there was some kind of bombing as well, he threw some explosives,” he said.
The club was a gathering point for many nationalities that night. Victims included an Indian Bollywood film producer, a Turkish waiter, a Lebanese fitness trainer and a Jordanian bar owner.
According to a forensics report quoted by the Milliyet newspaper, some of the victims were shot at very close distance or even at point-blank range.
Mehmet Yilan, 36, a barman at Reina for 12 years, said the attacker deliberately targeted the most crowded areas of the club, which sits on the shore of the Bosphorus in Ortakoy, an Istanbul neighbourhood packed with cafes and restaurants.
“He stormed in and immediately headed for the people to the left, which is always more crowded ... I wonder if he came here before because he seemed to know where to go,” Yilan said, describing how his manager yelled at people to run.
“He was shooting randomly but aiming for their upper bodies. He didn’t want to just injure them.”
Yilan escaped into a back room with five customers and two other bar staff, then went downstairs to a terraced area on the edge of the water. Despite the icy, snowy weather, some people jumped into the water to escape the gunfire.
“He kept shooting all throughout. I called for our boat which transfers our customers, but he kept firing towards the sea too. The boat couldn’t approach,” Yilan said.
He spoke to Reuters at the funeral of his colleague, Fatih Cakmak, a security guard who worked at the club and had survived a suicide bombing targeting police at a football stadium a few kilometres away just three weeks earlier.
“ISTANBUL‘S BEST NIGHT CLUB”
Lito German, 47, a Filipino living in Saudi Arabia who works in marketing, was in Istanbul for the first time with his wife and daughter and was approaching the club as the attack began.
“We were about 100 metres away and started seeing people fleeing towards us. Most were very well dressed, though many were barefoot and looking shaken and scared,” he said.
“We were actually meant to go to another club, but we didn’t want to be in a very big place due to security issues, and we found Reina by googling Istanbul’s best night club. We thought the most expensive club would have better security.”
Armoured police vehicles rushed to the scene as more and more people came running out, he said.
Among the dead were Abis Rizvi, 49, a Bollywood producer who was in the midst of making his second film, and Khushi Shah, a fashion designer in her 20s, both from Mumbai. The Indian government said it was making arrangements to help the families as they come to Turkey to collect the bodies.
Lebanon sent a plane to carry back the remains of three of its citizens who were among the dead.
Elias Wardini, 26, a personal trainer, had posted a picture on Instagram a few hours before the attack, posing in the Istanbul snow with another Lebanese victim in her twenties, Rita Shami.
The club’s owner, Mehmet Kocarslan, said police had taken extraordinary security measures in the run-up to the New Year in neighbourhoods on the Bosphorus shore around Ortakoy.
The U.S. embassy had warned of potential attacks on areas frequented by foreigners, but Kocarslan said there had been no specific threat against his club in particular and that many of the warnings had been country-wide.
“I really don’t know how this demon, I can’t even call him a terrorist, was able to reach here despite all this intelligence and extraordinary security measures,” he said.
The incident bore echoes of an attack by militant Islamists on Paris’s Bataclan music hall in November 2015 that, along with assaults on bars and restaurants, killed 130 people.
“When they’re determined, they’re determined, and there’s nothing to do,” said Turk, who was visiting from France.
“That doesn’t mean that I won’t be coming anymore. For me Turkey, Istanbul, is one of the nicest cities in the world and I will keep on coming again and again.”
Additional reporting by Miguel Pereira and Yesim Dikmen in Istanbul, Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai, Lisa Barrington in Beirut; editing by Ralph Boulton; Writing by Nick Tattersall