St Albans woman caught up in Tunisia terror attack

PUBLISHED: 08:17 02 July 2015 | UPDATED: 08:17 02 July 2015

People pay their respects on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, as British holidaymakers defy the terrorists and continue to stay in Sousse despite the bloodbath on the beach. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 30, 2015. The sands at Sousse were quiet and calm today as tourists and locals alike continued to pay their respects to the 38 dead outside the RIU Imperial Marhaba and Bellevue hotels. Flowers continue to be laid at three heart-shaped memorials that mark where so many people lost their lives, with many people in tears as they read the messages of support in several languages that have been placed in the sand. See PA POLICE Tunisia stories. Photo credit should read: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

People pay their respects on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, as British holidaymakers defy the terrorists and continue to stay in Sousse despite the bloodbath on the beach. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday June 30, 2015. The sands at Sousse were quiet and calm today as tourists and locals alike continued to pay their respects to the 38 dead outside the RIU Imperial Marhaba and Bellevue hotels. Flowers continue to be laid at three heart-shaped memorials that mark where so many people lost their lives, with many people in tears as they read the messages of support in several languages that have been placed in the sand. See PA POLICE Tunisia stories. Photo credit should read: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

A twenty one year old has spoken of her holiday nightmare following the attack in Tunisia on Friday.

Former St Albans Girls’ School pupil Sophie Bennett, of St Albans, had been vacationing in Sousse for just over a week when a gunman opened fire on the beach of the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel along the same strip of coastline.

She was with her boyfriend Robin Hawkins at their hotel, a sister establishment to the one targeted, when talk of a shooting began.

She said: “At first I was shocked, of course, but I assumed it had been maybe one or two people.

“Then people started to drag their children out of the pool and being British, we congregated in the bar together to try and find out more. Everyone was supporting everyone.”

Sophie said that they were left in the dark by the hotel - which was trying to keep them calm - and had to source their information from social media.

She added: “Then it all really began to sink in.”

Thirty eight people lost their lives in the terrorist incident, 25 of whom have been confirmed as British.

Sophie and Robin were staying at the Marhaba Hotel and the similarity of the name to the one where the terrorist attack happened led Sophie’s parents to fear the couple were caught up in it.

Sophie said: “My parents lost their minds when they heard about the attack. My Dad thought we were staying in the hotel as it had the name ‘Marhaba’ in it.

“I looked at my phone and I had 11 missed calls from my Dad. He was hysterical; my sister said he couldn’t even get onto the computer so she had to do it for him.”

The pair were a week and two days into their holiday when the incident happened but chose to stay instead of trying to get a flight home.

They arrived home yesterday (Wednesday), but said the rest of their holiday was far from relaxing.

When the Herts Advertiser 
spoke to Sophie on Tuesday, she said: “I’m trying to relax as much as I can. Everyone may seem very calm on the outside but you’re always making plans in your head about what we would do if an attack happened here.

“When we’re lying in bed we’re planning what we would do if someone came to our hotel room, what our escape route would be.”

Sophie added that she had become increasingly wary of people.

“I was sitting in the lobby when a man came in dressed in all black. He had a bag with him and I flipped my flip flops off and I was ready to leg it before I realised he was an electrician.”

The tourist trade in Tunisia is expected to suffer as a result of the attack and Sophie understood that by yesterday the hotel was expected to be empty and would remain that way for some time..

She said: “I was speaking to someone employed at our hotel who told us they cut half of the staff at the hotel next door, just brought them into a room and told them they wouldn’t need them any more.”

The couple said they had received a lot of support from family and friends during the rest of their holiday but she had come under attack on Twitter

after she posted a photo online of her and Robin in the pool following the attack.

She said: “I’ve never been so angry because this girl said something along the lines of ‘it’s disgusting people are taking photos having fun when so many people have died’.”

Sophie quickly put up a response on Twitter explaining: “I’m training to be a teacher - I can’t be seen to be gallivanting round when such a tragedy has happened. I needed to explain the truth.

“We weren’t at the same hotel and I’ve barely slept since the attack; how dare someone tell me not to try and enjoy what I can of my holiday? They don’t understand what it’s been like.”

While out in Tunisia, Sophie found out she got a first in her degree, which she recently completed.

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