Four hours before she checked in on Facebook last Friday night to say she was at Le Bataclan concert hall in Paris to see the Eagles of Death Metal band, Helen Wilson shared news via the same social media that she’d purchased a Mercedes SUV.
“ROCK EN BOL JUST BOUGHT ME THIS!!,” she wrote, adding five pink hearts alongside a photo of herself with the vehicle. The post was a celebration of her success running her catering company, Rock en Bol, which she launched after moving from New Orleans to Paris in 2000.
Her friend Dave Campbell saw the post and was happy for her. “It was just like, hell yes. She’s broken through that last barrier where she’s become a fixture,” he tells PEOPLE. In Paris, “she was very much at home there, and she just embraced it.”
Later that evening, after the first reports of the terrorist attacks that killed 129, Campbell got a call from a mutual friend saying Wilson was at the venue where hostages were being held.
“I raced back home,” he says. “I went on her Facebook page and right there, her last entry was ‘Checked in at Bataclan.’ . I had a lump in my throat and I was just thinking, ‘please, please, please.'”
The shooting claimed Wilson’s close friend, the band’s merchandise manager Nick Alexander, 36, but social media posts from Wilson’s Parisian friends soon revealed that Wilson was wounded but okay. Eventually, Campbell connected on Facebook with someone who worked with Wilson, and the next morning, when Campbell inquired with the contact, that person replied, “I’m actually in the [hospital] room with her right now.”
Campbell asked that a message be relayed: “Tell her I love the s–t out of her,” he wrote.
The reply: “She loves the s–t out of you, too,” he says. “I kind of laughed and cried at the same time.”
Wilson’s stateside friends were further relieved to learn, again via social media, that Wilson had come through her surgery and was moved out of intensive care yesterday.
When Anyone Started Running They Would Shoot Them Down
Wilson, 49, and originally from Los Angeles, gave a harrowing account of her ordeal to The Telegraph, a British newspaper: “We heard a couple of noises outside and people started running into the club. Then the guys came in with machine guns and shotguns and just started shooting people. It was mayhem.”
“When anyone started running they would shoot them down. So we got down on the floor. I was afraid whenever I heard a step behind me. They machine-gunned everybody.”
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“Nick [Alexander] was in front of me when we were lying on the ground. Somebody moved, and they just turned round and started shooting at us. He was shot in front of me.”
“His back was to me and I couldn’t see what happened and I tried to keep him talking and then I tried to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and they were just sort of in the shadows and they would shoot if anyone said anything.”
“Then he couldn’t breathe any more and I held him in my arms and told him I loved him.”
There is a Non-Conformity There That Is Quite Beautiful. … It Suited Her Very Well
While Alexander’s girlfriend Polina Buckley paid tribute to him in New York, according to The Telegraph, Wilson’s buddies recalled Wilson’s “rambunctious,” “fiery” and “compassionate” spirit, in the words of friend Jason Brad Berry.
Although Wilson was only attending the Bataclan concert as a fan, Berry says, she was scheduled to cater the next night’s U2 concert that was cancelled by the band in tribute to the victims of Paris.
Berry, Campbell and Wilson had become part of a tight circle of friends who worked together at the House of Blues in New Orleans in the 1990s, where Wilson was a bartender.
“Helen was just this bubbly little firecracker,” says Campbell. “She was just this hysterical character. She hung out with the boys more than anybody else. She was just like one of the buds for a lot of us. She was just straight up not a lot of fluff.”
When Wilson’s then-roommate obtained a work-study visa to go to Paris, Wilson arranged at the 11th hour to go along.
“I was like, ‘Hell yeah, go,” Campbell says he told her. “There is a non-conformity there that is quite beautiful The free-thinkers and the Left Bank – they’re very opinionated people and they’re very direct. It suited her very well.”
When the friend returned to the States after six months, Wilson stayed on in Paris.
“I don’t think she went to Paris thinking, ‘I’m going to start a catering business,'” Campbell says.
But she built one from scratch, serving bands backstage and trading on that easy familiarity she’d shown with the famous musicians who played The House of Blues.
“These were just people we were used to,” Campbell says. “For her I think it was just a natural segue. .. We were all blown away by her and so proud of her, and yet not so blown away, because that was just part of her personality.”
“She absolutely loved where she was and what she was doing,” he says.
And her spirit stayed intact.
While Wilson was the Paris hospital recovering after the attack, Berry saw a Facebook post by Wilson’s co-worker reporting that a nurse had come in to offer Wilson some water. “I’d rather have tequila,” the co-worker reported as Wilson’s response.
“Typical Helen,” says Berry, who then wrote on Facebook, to Wilson, “I’m going to buy you a whole barrel of tequila when this is over,” he wrote.
“She ‘liked’ that status,” he says.
To read more about the Paris attacks, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.