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Norway survivor played dead to stay alive

By Moni Basu, CNN
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Survivor 'pretended to be dead'
  • Adrian Pracon survived to tell a grim tale
  • He was shot in the shoulder but stayed still so the gunman would think him dead
  • Many others on Utoya island were not so lucky
  • A member of parliament recalls how victims were fooled by the shooter's police uniform

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(CNN) -- Three times, Adrian Pracon prepared to die on Utoya island, a Norwegian paradise turned to hell Friday. Friends he laughed with earlier in the day fell one by one in a gunman's hail of fire.

He survived to tell a horrifying tale Saturday.

When the shooting started Friday afternoon, many of the 600 people at the ruling Labour Party's youth camp ran down a hill and to the water. The shooter came after them, screaming.

"You are all going to die!"

Pracon was one of the last ones remaining between the shooter and the water and didn't have time to take his heavy clothes or boots off. About 100 meters into the chilly water, he realized he would not make it. He would drown with all that weight.

"I felt I couldn't breathe. I already swallowed too much water," he said. "I felt the clothes pulling me down."

He managed to swim back to shore and crouched behind a boulder with others. But the gunman found him. He was so close that Pracon could see down the barrel of his weapon. He was sure to get a direct hit. Pracon thought he was going to die.

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Another survivor, Otzar Fagerheim, described the gunman as having blond hair and pale skin. He carried three guns, he said. At times, he shot those guns with disarming calm, like he was shooting photographs. He even smiled, Fagerheim said.

Pracon was surprised to hear the shooter speaking Norwegian. He was certain a compatriot could never commit such a heinous act.

Pracon spoke back. "Do you want to hurt a fellow Norwegian? Please, no. Don't shoot."

Miraculously, the gunman pointed his weapon away. Instead, he aimed for those who were desperately trying to swim to safety. As though Pracon was too easy a target. As though it was more satisfying to shoot at a group of fleeing people, Pracon thought.

He heard his friends begging for help. Some fell limp on Pracon.

The gunman went away but returned to find Pracon again, hiding with about 10 others. The madness started again.

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More rounds of gunfire. He could hear so many of them say: "Please don't shoot me." One by one, their voices were silenced.

A woman next to him was shot in the leg. Pracon could see her wound was gaping.

Pracon clung to the dead. Tried to play dead. It was the only way he knew to survive.

He heard footsteps getting closer. He could hear the heavy breathing of the man. Then, "boom!"

Pracon's world fell silent. His hearing was gone. But he could feel intense pain on the back of his left shoulder. He bore it, lay face down, and kept perfectly still.

"I am sure he intended to hit me in the head," Pracon said.

The gunman missed by inches.

'I had to get out of there'

That afternoon, before the carnage, Stine Renate Haheim spoke to her party's youth about violence against women and children. It's a big issue for the young member of parliament, who began her political career a decade ago in the youth movement.

She came to idyllic Utoya island often for such gatherings -- 11 times, to be exact. It was "the most beautiful adventure of the summer," she said. She drew inspiration from Utoya.

It was an important place for people from all over Norway to gather to discuss the future of their own nation as well as the problems plaguing other parts of the world. It was a place to get away from the daily grind, the day-to-day debates in parliament, and think big.

And most of all, Haheim said, Utoya was a place of fraternity, of peace. "We love it there," she said.

Everything changed Friday. It will be remembered from now on as a place where 85 people died, seemingly for no reason.

Eskil Pedersen, a youth movement leader, assured everyone that they would be able to speak with counselors about the carnage they witnessed.

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"We will not be threatened to silence," he said. "We will continue fighting for what we believe in. This is the best way to honor the memory of those we have now lost. We will go back to Utoya."

But it will be difficult.

Haheim will hear the gunfire play over and over again in her head, just like she did Friday.

After her speech Friday afternoon, she was informed about the explosion in downtown Oslo. Many of the youth camp attendees huddled for an informational meeting on what was happening to their colleagues in the government buildings.

But when the shots rang out, the 600 people at the main building and surrounding camp scattered. Haheim quickly realized she should not be alone and followed others tumbling down the hill. Like Pracon, she hid behind boulders on the beach.

When there was a lull in the shooting, she thought it was over. But then it started again. Terrifying minutes that seemed never-ending.

She repositioned herself in another spot, away from the gunman's sight. She found herself with a girl, shivering in her underwear, who had shed her clothes in a desperate but failed bid to swim away.

Haheim took off her jacket to warm her companion.

"What is your name? Where are you from? Nice to meet you," they said to each other.

"It was a conversation about nothing," Haheim said. That's how they found calm in that moment of fear.

Haheim called her father, a police officer, on her mobile phone.

"The police are on their way," he reassured her.

She imagined that all the police and ambulances in the area had rushed to Oslo after the bombings. So her father's words gave her relief. Maybe the madness would end soon.

Shortly thereafter, she could hear helicopters overhead, and vehicles with sirens in the distance.

She was one of the older people at the gathering. She felt a sense of obligation to calm the younger people around her. Some were still in their teens.

"You find some kind of way to get freakishly calm in that situation," she said.

Finally, she heard someone say: "The police are here. We are safe."

She hugged the man next to her. But within moments, the shooting began again. They had all been deceived -- the gunman was wearing a police uniform.

"Run, run, run!" Haheim shouted. The rocks were slippery. She stumbled, fell, picked herself up. She had to keep running.

"The only thing on my mind was that I had to get out of there," she said.

'Bloody, bloody mess'

When real police officers finally showed up, the survivors were suspect. Were these more gunmen in uniform?

"Everyone started screaming, crying, begging the police to throw away their weapons," Pracon said.

After about a two-hour ordeal, Pracon and Haheim were rescued -- Haheim without injury and Pracon with a gunshot wound that was closed up at the hospital. Police arrested a man the Norwegian media identified as Anders Behring Breivik, 32, a Norwegian who apparently had taken issue with his homeland's growing multi-culturalism.

It was only many hours later, in his hospital bed, that Pracon began realizing the magnitude of the "bloody, bloody mess."

Recuperating after stitches Saturday, Pracon said fear was setting in anew. Now he would begin to discover the names of the dead. They were friends who would never again share a laugh with him.

Police and rescue teams were still combing Utoya island -- 13 boats on the water and a meter-by-meter land search, said Sven Mollekleiv, president of Norwegian Red Cross.

"We have now also mothers and fathers who don't know if their sons or daughters are alive," Mollekleiv said. "They are just waiting."

Doctors cleared Pracon for solid food Saturday afternoon and he sought comfort in a plate of lasagna.

"It was a perfect dinner for me right now," he said.

A moment of joy, perhaps. But for Pracon, Haheim and other survivors of the slaughter, a long journey of healing lies ahead.

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