Tunisia terror attack: Ryedale couple speak of their ordeal

Suzanne and Barry West 'PA1527-2g
Suzanne and Barry West 'PA1527-2g

A Ryedale couple say they are lucky to be alive after they were seconds away from coming face-to-face with the Tunisian gunman.

Barry and Suzanne West, of Reeton Terrace, Norton, had been sitting by the pool outside the Rui Imperial Marhaba hotel late on Friday morning when Tunisian student Seifeddine Rezgui started firing indiscriminately at tourists sunbathing on the beach 150 metres away.

“We thought it was firecrackers coming from the beach area,” said Barry. “But then, seconds later, people started to run, screaming, towards where we were.”

The quick-thinking couple ran inside the hotel at the popular resort of Port El Kantaoui and, despite being slowed by arthritis in Suzanne’s leg, managed to dive into a waiting elevator.

“Literally as the lift set off, we heard what we thought was a grenade going off in the lobby,” said Barry. “Our guess was that he was 20 seconds behind us. Had we been at the other side of the pool, there is no way we would have got to the lift. He would have caught up with us.”

Witnesses have since said Rezgui entered the hotel via the pool area and made his way towards the reception, where he is reported to have thrown at least one grenade into a staff corridor - killing a woman who had taken shelter there.

He is then understood to have returned to the beech to continue his shooting spree.

Suzanne said: “I don’t think we realised until we saw the television afterwards just how close he was to us. All the time we were thinking there are a lot more gunmen, maybe a dozen of them. It was non-stop firing and handgrenades.”

Barry and Suzanne, meanwhile, had taken refuge in a second floor hotel room with a couple from Sunderland and a Scottish woman, barricading the door with chairs.

Suzanne said: “We were just sat behind these beds, trying to be as quiet as possible. We still didn’t know what was going on and we didn’t know how long we were going to be there.”

Luckily, there was a television in the room and in the early afternoon, news of the attack began to be revealed, along with reports that there were two gunmen.

“That was when we started worrying about our family at home, but we had no phone,” said Suzanne.

They would spend around three hours hiding in the bedroom, not knowing that Rezgui, acting alone, had already been killed by police.

“Eventually there was a knock at the door which frightened everyone to death,” said Barry. “I opened the door and there were three men in balaclavas and machine guns, so I shut the door again! But they said ‘it’s okay, its the police.’ I opened the door again and they said give us half an hour to do a complete sweep of the hotel.”

Returning to their own hotel room, the couple were able to get a simple text message to their relieved daughters Mandy and Alison: “mum and dad okay.”

Thirty eight people would be killed, with as many as 30 of those expected to be confirmed as British - making it the most significant attack on the British people since the 7/7 attacks in London.

The aftermath of the attack brought it even closer to home how close they had been to running into the gunman.

“Literally 10 yards from our sunbeds, the steps were covered in blood,” said Suzanne. “The atmosphere in the hotel was really sombre as I understand two of the staff died, that’s what we were told anyway.”

“After that, Thomson holiday reps were everywhere. We want to make is clear that they couldn’t have done anymore for us. They called us to a meeting at 10pm and said anyone that wants to go home should be packed and down in the lobby by 12am. Everyone in our hotel was then evacuated.”

Within 24 hours of the attack, Barry and Suzanne were back in Norton - having been flown back to Manchester and then bussed to Leeds Bradford Airport where they picked up their car.

But, in the days that have followed, they have been glued to the television as they try to make sense of what happened, and of the movements and motives of Rezgui.

“After it happened, I felt reasonably calm but since I came back, it has really hit home when you see everything on the television,” said Barry.

Suzanne added: “We want to know what happened. It helps me and I need to know where he was and where he went.”

“Everyone has been great since we came home. We have had people ringing up to see how we are and we’d like to thank everyone for all their kind thoughts.”

Both are also keen to pay tribute to the Tunisians, the hotel staff and the people themselves.

“It is a fabulous hotel,” said Suzanne. “We feel sorry for the staff who were brilliant. They are lovely people and love the British tourists. It is them who are going to suffer in the future. Those waiters who run up and down all day - they won’t have a job next year probably because that hotel has now had its day.”

A national minute’s silence for the victims of the Tunisia attack will be held on Friday at 12pm.