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Nice attack witnesses recall chaos; ‘bodies, limbs and blood’

A truck rammed into a crowd in Nice, France, during a celebration of the French national holiday. At least 84 people were killed before police shot the driver. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post, Photo: Luca Bruno/The Washington Post)

It was a lovely night in Nice, Damien Allemand recalled. Thousands of people thronged the seaside promenade that skirts the edge of the city, faces tilted upward to watch fireworks explode overhead in honor of France’s favorite holiday. Light and music spilled from restaurants, cheers punctuated the bursts of fireworks.

Allemand, a reporter for Nice Matin, a local newspaper, was about to leave when he heard the crack of gunshots cut through the revelry. A fraction of a second later, a large white box truck went roaring past. It plowed into the crowds, as though it intended to hit as many people as possible.

“I saw bodies flying like bowling pins in its path. Heard sounds, howls that I will never forget,” Allemand wrote in a post on the website Medium. The “truck of death,” as he called it, had passed just several meters from where he stood.

For a moment, Allemand was frozen. People streamed past him, screaming, crying. He heard someone yell, “Get to shelter!” Another pleaded, “Where is my son?”

Finally, he turned and ran.

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Suddenly, everyone was running, according to witness accounts, still unsure of what was going on, but simply running because everyone else was.

“[My partner and I] couldn’t hear gunshots,” Paul Delane told CNN. “We could only hear the music that was playing way too loud.… Everyone just started to run because when you see masses of people starting to run like that, I guess the natural reaction is just to run with them.”

People ducked into any place of refuge they could find, any business or restaurant that was open. Others jumped across fences.

“We saw a guy basically throw his kids over a fence and then jump after them,” Ismali Khalidi told the Guardian.

Imad Dafaaoui, a Moroccan university student who was vacationing in Nice, said the truck missed crushing him by less than eight inches: “I was at my friend’s apartment, and we heard fireworks coming from the beach, so we decided to put on our clothes and go see the fireworks,” Daffaaoui told ABC News early Friday morning from Nice. “We went there. We took photos.”

“I saw a huge truck, crushing over people,” he said. “It was running over people. Some people were trying to get out of the way. Some people were in shock. I started to run away. I was in shock. I couldn’t even think. I was running. There was a bench in front of me, so I had to jump over it, so I jumped over it and fell over on a woman.”

The attack in the French Riviera city of Nice Thursday night left at least 84 people dead and about 50 others critically injured. The driver of the truck mowed down dozens of people and fired on others before being shot down by police, regional president Christian Estrosi said. Among the dead were at least two Americans. Many more Americans were in the crowd, including 17 Georgia Tech students, according to one of them, James Walker, quoted by WXIA TV in Georgia. 

“The mirror of the truck came up and hit me on the head,” Walker told the station. “I mean, I’m not hurt at all, but that’s pretty much how close I was to it.”

The bloody attack came at the end of one of France’s most important holidays, Bastille Day, marking the start of the French Revolution 227 years ago. All around the country, the occasion was celebrated with military parades and fireworks displays.

At 10:30 p.m., in a matter of moments, the celebration came to a sudden, bloody end.

Maryam Violet, an Iranian journalist on vacation in Nice, told the Guardian she was part of the crowd watching the fireworks on the Promenade des Anglais.

“It was so peaceful. It was a festivity vibe,” she said.

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The show had just ended, and people were beginning to disperse, when the truck came barreling toward them.

“You just see this big white … truck,” said Tony Molina, a witness who spoke to CNN. “I can’t see the driver, but it’s just kind of going at different angles, so it’s going from left to right, continuing at about 25, 30 miles per hour.”

“People were fleeing and shouting,” Violet said. “People were shouting, ‘It’s a terrorist attack! It’s a terrorist attack!’ It was clear that the driver was doing it deliberately.”

Video shows panic in the streets of Nice, France, after a truck crashed into a crowd July 14, killing at least 84 people. (Video: Instagram/GA.Morrow)

David Coady, a producer for Australian Broadcasting, reported from the scene that the promenade was “completely packed with families…. I looked towards a truck, and I thought it was out of place among the crowd, and then I started hearing screaming, and so I turned and started to run with the crowd away from the screaming. There was a lot of panic at the time. I was running past restaurants where people had got up and left their meals.”

“People were trying to get into hotels,” he said, “any businesses that were open, trying to take shelter because it was unclear what was happening, and with each bang that we heard behind us, people perhaps started to go a bit faster. People were tripping over. It was a very chaotic scene.”

Adding to the panic were families who lost track of each other during the chaos. Grace-Ann Morrow, interviewed on the BBC, described getting separated from her aunt and uncle and desperately looking for them.

“I had no idea what was going on,” she said. “It was complete chaos. People were screaming, kids were crying, security guards were on their walkie-talkies. I only speak a little bit of French, but you could hear words being mumbled. You know, ‘suicide, suicide,’ you know, like suicide. And you’re just thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what is going on?’ It was so out of the blue. You kind of thought it was a joke for a minute, why everybody was running and screaming.”

Estrosi, who is a former mayor of Nice and currently president of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, told French TV that the attack was “clearly premeditated.” Authorities later found arms and explosives inside the truck.

The crowd, which contained both tourists and Nice natives, fled onto side streets and into restaurants. Videos taken from the scene showed terrified people screaming in a mix of languages.

Allemand, the journalist, said he took cover in a nearby restaurant and waited for the volley of gunshots to end.

Egyptian Nadar el-Shafei described how he tried to speak to the truck driver during the attack, not realizing his intentions. He told the BBC: “I kept yelling at him … waving with my hand, to stop and … trying to tell him that there was a lot of people under his truck, dead already. But he didn’t give any attention to anyone outside the truck, and suddenly I saw him picking up something like a cellphone. I thought he would call the ambulance, for the accident, but it seems that I was wrong because he just picked up his gun and he started to shoot the police.”

“It looked like a handgun, a Glock,” he told NBC News.  “And then I see the police shooting him.”

“We stepped back,” he told BFM TV, “but I opened my cellphone I took a video. His head was out the window. They [the police] came close just to be sure there was no one with him. The police saw me taking the video so they screamed at me, ‘Leave!’ because they thought there might have been a bomb in the car or a bomb on him.”

Allemand, meanwhile, walked back toward the spot where the truck had come to rest. The windshield was riddled with bullets. Nearby, a man was crying.

The driver was believed to have fired several times before being shot, according to Agence France-Presse. Sky News tweeted footage of what appeared to be police approaching the truck and opening fire.

Photos from the scene showed the result of the police fusillade: the truck’s windshield had at least 27 bullet holes in it.

Inside the truck, authorities said they found identification papers of a 31-year-old French citizen of Tunisian origin, along with “guns” and “larger weapons.”

The dead were everywhere.

“Bodies every five meters in the road, limbs … blood,” said Allemand.

Alain Boudail, owner of the restaurant where Allemand took shelter, told Time the attack was “carnage.”

“I could hear screams, cries, ­and it looked like bowling. People were being thrown in the air ­two or three meters high,” he said. “In front of my restaurant, there were at least 10 people lying on the street, dead.”

The High Club, a night club next door, had been turned into a field hospital, he said. So had the lobby of a swanky hotel called Negresco, where some of the injured were taken.

On the promenade, blood pooled around bodies covered by blankets and foil sheets. Horror-struck people knelt by the bodies of the dead, while first responders tended to others. A Reuters photographer captured an image of a small figure covered in shining gold foil. A child’s doll lay beside the body.

“I was walking for nearly a mile, and there were dead bodies all over the place,” Violet told the Guardian. “I think over 30 dead bodies are on the ground and lots of people are injured.”

Violet said she saw two sisters and a brother from Poland who had lost two siblings, and another family whose mother had died. She guessed that the family was Muslim, because some members were wearing headscarves.

“In Arabic, they were saying she’s a martyr,” Violet said.

“These bodies kind of sat. It was sad, because there were families just laying down, crying next to these bodies,” said Tony Molina, who saw attack from a hotel balcony.

“Then they had to clear the area out. The bodies sat there covered up.”

Allemand wrote that he wanted to stay and help, but “froze again.”

“At that moment I lost courage,” he said. He returned to his scooter and drove away as the ambulances began to arrive.

“This evening,” he concluded, “was horror.”

Julie Zauzmer, Yanan Wang, Mary Hui, Ben Guarino, Travis Andrews and Melissa Etehad contributed to this report.

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