May 31, 1993 12:00 PM

THE MAN IN THE DARK CLOTHING, HIS HEAD hidden by a helmet and a black mask, slipped through the gate of the Commandant-Charcot school in the affluent Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, May 13. He walked down a hallway and burst into the first classroom on his left, where 21 nursery-school children, ages 3 and 4, were making cards for their mothers. Brandishing a pistol, he silently handed a note to their teacher, Laurence Dreyfus, 30, which explained that the bag around his waist was filled with explosives and that he was taking her entire class hostage.

The man’s deadly sense of purpose was obvious. He summoned headmistress Suzanne Soulier and told her to call the police. After she left, he pulled down the blinds and barricaded himself behind two 4-foot cupboards. Then he slipped an eight-page, laser-printed letter under the classroom door, demanding 100 million francs ($18.5 million). “I won’t be taken alive,” the letter read. “I’m determined to blow up everything with me if I fail.”

So began one of the most terrifying hostage situations in modern French history. Parents—ranging from the wealthy to their servants—rushed to the schoolhouse fearful that the drama might end, like the tragedy at Waco, with the fiery deaths of innocent children. Instead, they were rewarded with good luck, heroism and a successful conclusion to what would eventually become a 46-hour life-and-death drama played out before an anxious international audience.

The good luck came right at the start. Soon after the siege began, Louis Bayon, chief of an elite French antiterrorist unit known as RAID, marched up to the door of classroom 8 and started asking questions. At that point little was known about the masked man oilier than the fact that he used the initials HB—for Human Bomb—and that he was clearly intelligent. His letter was well written; his planning was meticulous. But until Bayon showed up, he had refused to talk to police.

As Bayon coaxed the masked man into giving terse answers to simple questions, the officer had a hunch. He brought a parent who had arrived on the scene, jeweler Pierre Narboni, 38, into the classroom. “He [the hostage taker] didn’t want me to come in,” Narboni says. “He was playing with a detonator that was attached to a satchel around his waist.” Then one of the hostages, Narboni’s 4-year-old son, Lucas, ran up. Narboni simply scooped up the boy and look him out of the room.

Soon Neuilly Mayor Nicolas Sarkozy joined the negotiations. “I know you can’t be a bad man,” Sarkozy told the hostage taker. “It’s impossible. Children feel everything, and they are not afraid of you.” By 1:15 p.m. five hostages had been released. with priority given to children who had health problems or were beginning to panic. Later that afternoon, Sarkozy arrived in the classroom with $2 million. “We’ve brought you some money,” he told the hostage taker. “But you’ll have to let another child go free.”

Over the next 12 hours children were released in return for money, a telephone, a radio, a TV set and an interview with television journalist Jean-Pierre About. Eventually only six children—all girls—remained. Meanwhile, teacher Dreyfus was proving herself a hero. As soon as the siege began, she quietly gathered the children well away from the masked man in the 18-by 30-foot room and occupied them with singing, games and a multitude of stuffed toys. “Two or three children burst into tears at the sight of the masked man’s gun and asked me, ‘Is he going to kill us?’ ” Dreyfus told Paris Match magazine, where her husband, Laurent, is head of publicity. “Others were calmer and exchanging theories. ‘He’s a policeman,’ said one. ‘No, he’s come to do repairs,’ insisted another.”

It wasn’t always easy for the kids. On the first afternoon Dreyfus tried to get them to nap, but they were very restless. “You can imagine all those children heaped up in a little corner of the room,” she recalled. “They were making a terrible racket. ‘Make them be quiet!’ said the man harshly. I got scared he’d shoot if he got exasperated. So I stood up to him. I can’t do anything more than I’m doing.’

At several points during the ordeal, the hostage taker allowed Dreyfus to leave the classroom to bring parents news of their children. But she returned to the classroom after each trip, even after the masked man told her she could go. “They were my children. They’d been left in my care,” she told Paris Match. “Every time I’d come back after a rest, they’d jump into my arms.” Dreyfus, the mother of a 21-month-old daughter named Constance, had been teaching full-time for just nine months. “She’s so brave,” commented one parent. The government agreed. Dreyfus will receive France’s highest civilian award, the Legion of Honor, for her efforts to protect the children.

Also receiving the Legion of Honor will be Evelyne Lambert, 25, a fire-brigade doctor who voluntarily entered the classroom to help Dreyfus care for the children. Pretty, single and just starting her career after graduating from a French military medical school in 1992, Lambert spent most of her time in the classroom trying in vain to get the hostage taker to open up to her. “He was very polite, sometimes obsequious, and would slip into moments of delirium due to stress,” says Lambert. “He saw the kids’ drawings on the windows move and screamed that the police were going to kill him.”

On the morning of May 14, the Human Bomb actually played with the remaining kids for two or three hours. “He was very pleasant with them,” says Lambert. “He explained that he didn’t want to hurt them, that it was the police who were the bad guys because they didn’t want to give him money. But he never showed his face.” By midday, though, his patience with negotiators had worn thin, and he said little until a van pulled up with three trunks of money and video equipment he had requested to make tapes of the six remaining children for their parents.

The video camera—and his own exhaustion—proved to be his undoing. Lambert secretly positioned the camera so police could monitor the entire classroom from a command post nearby. The next morning authorities could see that the man, still wearing his mask, had dozed off. Lambert, following a preestablished plan, had awakened the children to play Turtle, a game in which they hid themselves under their mattresses. Suddenly, at a signal from Lambert, eight officers carrying 9mm pistols with silencers entered the room. When the masked man began to stir, he was shot three times in the head. Mercifully, none of the children witnessed his death.

An identification card found on the dead man showed that he was Eric Schmitt, 41, who has been described by an ex-colleague as “urbane, energetic and brilliant.” He had been a successful maintenance inspector for IBM, but left the firm in 1982 to found his own computer company. It grew into a major business with several branches but went bankrupt in 1987. Schmitt, who was married and divorced as a young man, never recovered, sinking into depression, friends said.

Remarkably unperturbed by their experience as hostages, the children didn’t seem much taken by their captor. “He wasn’t nice, the man,” explained one child. “We played, but he didn’t want to tell us his name.”

DAVID GROGAN

CATHY NOLAN and NICKLE QUESNE in Neuilly-sur-Seine

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