The weary travelers had just drifted off to sleep, with thoughts of the strange but wonderful new place — the City of Light — swirling in their heads.
And then the lights came on — harsh lights, followed quickly by people rushing into their rooms and telling the travelers to grab their belongings.
“We were all asleep. We didn’t know what was going on,” said Brooke Bennett, part of a group of 22 Chicago Public Schools students who arrived in Paris last Friday.
What was going on, of course, were the terrorist attacks that have left at least 129 dead, injured hundreds more and traumatized an entire city.
The CPS students — many of whom had never set foot in a foreign country — had just arrived in Paris that morning, as part of a foreign exchange program. They were dozing in their hostel beds when the attacks occurred, said the students, who arrived back at O’Hare International Airport Monday afternoon.
“The teachers came in our room and were like, ‘Grab your passports, grab your shoes, grab you phone,’ ” Bennett, 17, explained.
All 22 students — from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood — crowded into one room with their teachers, and for about the next hour, they frantically texted friends and family — reassuring them that they were ok. Some cried. Teachers did their best to reassure the kids.
“It was just so scary and I didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Raina Emery, 17.
It took several hours before Bennett’s mother got the news she so desperately wanted to hear.
“It’s been the longest weekend of my life,” said Cathy Bennett, her eyes welling with tears. “I don’t think I’ve ever had so much worry before in my life, and I never want it again.”
The students were staying at the Bastille Hostel, about a five-minute walk from La Belle Equipe bar, where attackers sprayed the terrace bar with gunfire, killing 18 people.
The group was supposed to stay in Paris through this Saturday, but made the decision to come home early. On Monday, most were glad to be home but disappointed not to have seen more of Paris.
“After his happened, we couldn’t see anything because everything was closed. It kind of like ruined the experience for us,” Emery said. “But hopefully I will go back some time.”