In Depth

'The devil came with the taxi': Reina's owner on the aftermath of carnage

A week after the attack, owner Memet Kocarslan reveals new details about what happened inside the Reina nightclub in Istanbul on New Year's Eve.

A week after the attack that killed 39, questions remain about how the shooter eluded security checks

Memet Kocarslan, owner of the Reina nightclub, says it is too soon to discuss reopening the space. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

"Go to hell 2016," was the cheeky greeting posted for hundreds of people walking into the Reina nightclub on New Year's Eve. Everyone was ready to leave a difficult year behind.

Now the club's owner, Memet Kocarslan, can't imagine what the next year will hold, or what the famous club's future will be. It's too soon, he says, to imagine reopening it.

"The devil came with the taxi," Kocarslan says, speaking of the shooter who arrived in a cab and stormed the club at 1:15 last Sunday morning, killing 39 people and injuring some 60 others.

A week to the day later, where people were dancing under the decorations, much of the club is now covered in a heavy blanket of snow. The panic and fear of that night is frozen here.
One of the bars at Reina, abandoned and snow-covered, one week after the deadly shooting that killed 39 people. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

A bullet hole has left a shattered web in one window and the bar bears its own scars. A spacious corner booth is covered in piles of coats abandoned in the chaos, dozens of shoes twisted with tinsel on the floor.

Shooter a 'professional'

The videos recorded by the 200 security cameras watching every corner of the multi-level venue prove that the shooter, was a professional, Kocarslan says, someone who must have had years of experience on a battlefield. Not a single bullet wasted, he says. "He is constantly looking back, shooting from the hip."

Kocarslan adds the shooter seemed to target women with outfits revealing cleavage, shooting them more than once.

His own partner was one of the first to face the gunman. Security footage shows him at the entrance just as the shooter rushes the front door, spraying bullets from his rifle throughout.
A window at Reina, shattered by one of the gunman's bullets. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

He survived because the shooter was more focused on killing the policeman at the door and getting inside, Kocarslan says.

And he adds, the idea that there was more than one shooter, or that the shooter hid in the kitchen for several minutes, as some have reported, should be put to rest because of what those cameras recorded.

Escape strategy

The video also shows the strategy that went into the shooter's escape, Kocarslan says.

His ammunition finally spent, the shooter threw a smoke bomb, but that wasn't enough of a distraction to secure a getaway.
Some of the dozens of personal effects abandoned in the chaos as a gunman moved through the club. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)

So, he tried to lie on top of a victim he thought was dead. The victim was alive, and remarkably, kicked the shooter off of him.

Rattled briefly, the gunman was eventually able to smear the blood of another victim on himself before running for the exit, Kocarslan says. When he got there, he added another deception, faking an injury to appear as if he was one of the victims.

High security

Kocarslan hadn't received any direct threats to his clubs, but he, like many in Istanbul, knew that busy places, specifically those frequented by Americans, could be targets. The security checkpoints in Istanbul were reassuring.

Since mid-December at least three police checkpoints and special forces police were positioned along the two-lane road stretching from Ortakoy to Bebek, seaside neighbourhoods with some of Istanbul's most exclusive addresses.

So Kocarslan felt secure last week as he was heading to celebrate at his other property, Suada, a multi-restaurant and pool venue floating in the middle of the Bosphorus, a short boat ride away from Reina.

If we don't open, terrorism is going to win. But if we do open — 39 people died in that place. How can life go on?- Memet Kocarslan, owner of Reina

He was pleased that, despite being a well-known figure in this posh part of Istanbul, he and his daughter were stopped by police. He learned later some of his staff, chefs at the Reina restaurant, were carefully searched too, down to the burgers and fries they bought before their shifts.

There were precautions, Kocarslan says, "that I didn't see on Sept. 12," referring to the military coup and martial law Turks lived under in 1980.

"It gives you a sense of security," he adds.

But terror managed to find a way in.

Heroism amid horror

If anything can reassure him in these difficult, "ghost"-like days and nights, Kocarslan says the stories of heroism during those terrifying seven minutes do.

One example he can't forget — the wounded man pulling two female friends to safety, before being killed.

And visiting the survivors, he is stunned by their grace.

One told him not to feel at fault, "this could happen anywhere," he says they told him.

Friends and supporters have said Reina must reopen. Going there now will be a protest, of sorts, a bold act against terror.

But Kocarslan says "we're not there yet, we're not there yet."

The club isn't just business, it is like one of his children. Reina is named after one of his three daughters. But he is still in shock and still torn.

"If we don't open, terrorism is going to win. But if we do open — 39 people died in that place. How could life go on?"

About the Author

Nil Köksal

CBC News

Nil Köksal is a CBC News correspondent based in Istanbul. Köksal is an award-winning journalist and host who has reported from New York, Washington D.C., Turkey, Tunisia and Syria. You can connect with Nil here: