Derbyshire family relive horror of Tunisian beach massacre

A mother has told how she had to search through bodies for her missing daughter after being caught up in the Tunisian beach massacre.

Tuesday, 17th May 2016, 6:30 pm
Tunisian beach massacre survivors from Ilkeston Millie with her parents Zoe and Paul Thompson.

The terror of the Tunisian attack has been relived for the first time by Derbyshire mum Zoe Thompson.

And she revealed she was given advice by an anti-terror officer in Derby even as a lone gunman was still attacking the resort. She was separated from her husband and daughter and faced an agonising hour before she even knew if they were alive.

Lounging by the pool at Tunisia’s five-star Riu Imperial Marhaba hotel while her husband and teenage daughter were playing darts in the sun, Mrs Thompson was enjoying the third day of her fortnight-long holiday. But then disaster struck, grenades exploded, bullets flew and the luxury resort turned into a bloodbath.

Mrs Thompson, of Ilkeston, has spoken of the horror of the day – nearly a year on – which left her family battling post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

She said: “I was on a sun lounger when the gunfire started on the beach. He fired a few times and came running up to the pool area. Everybody just ran. He was shooting and throwing grenades. He then came up to the hotel and I ended up in the gift shop in the lobby with four locals who were trying to get hold of the police.”

Zoe said the 47 minutes the attack went on for felt like an eternity. In the midst of the horror, she called her mum – who got in touch with counter terrorism back in the UK. “A guy from Derby called me and told me what to do and how to be careful. Even with police and the army there, you are in a foreign country and don’t really know what’s going off or whether it’s still safe,” she said. “What I was greeted with when I came out of that room was absolutely horrendous. It’s something you can never forget.”

The death toll reached 38, with 30 of the victims British. A further 39 people were wounded by killer Seifiddine Rezgui Yacoubi – who was shot and killed by authorities.

In the aftermath of the attack, Zoe, a 43-year-old estimating manager, went looking for her loved ones. She said: “I can’t even describe it, it’s just impossible. The worst part of the whole day was being reunited with Paul and seeing he didn’t have Millie with him. We had to search bodies because we didn’t know any other way to look. I can’t put it into words. Millie is my everything and I thought she was gone. I was in physical pain, it was horrendous.”

Thankfully, the couple found their daughter in a room behind reception, but a fear of public places took hold of them after witnessing the massacre and all three were diagnosed with PTSD. It was only after speaking to TV therapist couple Nik and Eva Speakman they could face shopping or going to a restaurant or pub.

“We were living in a fear bubble,” said Zoe. “We didn’t go out. No pubs or restaurants, even shopping was difficult. It’s bizarre what it does to you. It stops you getting on with your life. We spoke to Nik and Eva and they helped us see everything completely differently. I desperately needed help. I needed to be OK for Millie, but she’s still suffering.” Millie, 15, is still battling PTSD but electrical engineer Paul, 43, and Zoe are feeling better.

“It never goes away,” said Zoe. “Millie’s got her GCSEs coming up and we’re supporting her through that, but she’s missed a lot of school. “If our story can help anyone take that step to get help and overcome their fears or phobias then I’ll be happy.

“We are never going to forget it.”

Zoe has since set up an online therapy group via Facebook for other survivors of the Sousse attack to talk with each other, and helped more than 20 people.