The survivors huddled atop a giant industrial freezer in terrified silence as the Islamic State gunman entered the nightclub kitchen. Wiping his Kalashnikov free of fingerprints, he didn’t see them as he changed clothes and put on a Santa hat.
Then smearing himself with the blood of New Year’s revelers killed in the carnage minutes earlier, he left the kitchen and blended into the crowd of survivors being evacuated.
Inside one of Istanbul’s most glamorous nightclubs, the attacker had just fired 180 rounds in seven minutes, killing 39 people.
A traffic jam had nearly thwarted his arrival an hour earlier and he jumped out to walk the last few hundred yards (meters) to the Reina club. His Kalashnikov concealed beneath his coat, he pulled the weapon out only when he was within easy range of the club’s unarmed guards.
Ali Unal, the Reina co-owner, was having a smoke outside and talking on his cellphone. It was 1:20 a.m. and Unal thought the gunfire was just New Year’s fireworks. Then bullets bounced off a heater in the entryway.
After killing a guard and a bystander, the attacker tossed a stun grenade and entered the club unopposed.
An hour of pure terror followed, according to the accounts of survivors interviewed by The Associated Press, as well as a review of surveillance video and reports in government-linked media.
Sprawling along the narrow strait that links Europe and Asia, the three-story Reina had five restaurants and curtained terraces cascading down to the edge of the Bosporus Sea. When the assailant entered, it was packed with some 600 people.
Starting from the upper terraces, he opened fire as he crossed blue-lighted dance floors pulsating with rave music.
Some revelers fled to the seaside terraces and grabbed the long gray curtains to drop into the water below; others desperately sought hiding places. Many simply dropped to the ground as bodies fell over them, praying they wouldn’t be seen.
“I caught a curtain,” said Karim Noureddine, a 27-year-old Lebanese who was at the club with his girlfriend.
“I rappelled down and she followed me and I was able to escape,” he said, speaking at the Beirut funeral of his friend, Elias Wardini, who was among those killed in the bloodbath. “I did not know what was going on inside, because I was out in the first 50 seconds and running toward the sea.”
For Sabri Ozturk, one of the club’s restaurant managers, time stretched agonizingly.
“The gunfire wouldn’t cease,” said Ozturk, whose wife and 19-year-old son had come to keep him company during the holiday shift. “They say seven minutes, but it felt like seven hours.”
Ozturk dropped to the floor and shouted to his family to do the same.
“But it wasn’t just them. It was everyone around them. Our feet and heads were on top of each other. My wife was beneath my arm. My hand was on my son’s head because he is protesting. I’m closing his mouth, telling him to be silent.”
They stayed that way for about an hour, Ozturk said. “Then the noise stopped, but is the terrorist inside? Is he going to detonate a bomb? You start thinking: He should just blow it up so it can be over. That’s the state you are in.”
Yunus Turk, a 25-year-old Frenchman at the Reina with his cousin, was hiding on the terrace as the gunman moved through the club. He grabbed a table and held it in front of him as a shield, hearing bullets ping off the metal.
“I was just trying to calm the people around me, so the shooters wouldn’t notice us. Because I thought at the time that there had to more than one. I would never have imagined that one person could do so much,” 23-year-old Yussuf Kodat told France Television.
Security experts said the methodical attack was carried out by an experienced killer who emptied four machine gun cartridges in rapid succession, with magazines tied to each other for quicker action.
“I’m not just talking about a training camp, I’m talking he fought,” said Michael Horowitz, a security analyst.
Most bullets hit upper torsos with deadly precision, and some people were shot point blank on the floor, according to witnesses and photos taken inside the club.
“I was shot when I was already on the ground. He was shooting people that he had already shot,” William Raak, an American who was wounded, told NBC News.
Alaa Abd El Hai, a 30-year-old Arab Israeli dentist who had come to the club with three friends, was on the dance floor when the gunman opened fire. She thought the music stopped, but wasn’t sure what happened to the DJs.
Sensing the shooter nearby, El Hai crawled 15 yards (meters) to the kitchen with one of her friends and other club-goers, desperately searching for a hiding place. They tried a storage room but it was locked. Then they saw the freezer. Big enough for all of them, but too high for everyone to reach.
The men climbed up first, then reached down for the women. El Hai wasn’t sure exactly how many were crammed into the small space: Two Germans, two Iranians, two Turks, an Egyptian woman, she recalled.
Four rounds later, the gunman ran out of ammunition and went to the kitchen.
“The Egyptian woman saw the attacker through small openings in a curtain coming to the kitchen with the weapon pointed at the head of another woman. Thank God he did not see us,” El Hai said.
He spent 30 agonizing minutes wiping the Kalashnikov free of fingerprints then leaving it there along with his coat. He changed clothes, put on a Santa hat and blended into the panicked crowd — smearing himself with blood on his chest, and limping.
El Hai later learned that one of her friends, 18-year-old Layan Nasser, who became separated during the night’s chaos, was among the dead.
When police stormed the building 40 minutes after the massacre began, they demanded that everyone put their hands up. The survivors, not sure they were really policemen and terrified of a second wave of shooting, did not immediately comply.
When the hundreds of people slowly evacuated into the street around 2:30 a.m., the shooter was among them. He hopped into a taxi unnoticed and remains at large.
The cab driver told investigators the man spoke on his cellphone in Turkish and had no money to pay for the ride, according to government-linked media.
Investigators later found 500 Turkish Lira ($140) in the pocket of his coat back in the kitchen.