A red ambulance, its lights flashing, sped down the road and jerked to a stop. The driver jumped out, asking, “Where are the wounded?” “We only have dead here,” replied two men, trying to comfort a young man who was weeping over the body of his mother and imploring Allah to accept her into heaven.
An eerie tableau of death and dying extended along a mile-long stretch of the graceful, crescent-shaped Promenade des Anglais on Thursday night, running from Nice’s airport to the oldest part of the coastal city. One moment, there was a great street celebration for France’s Bastille Day holiday — and the next, a truck came barrelling through at high speed, leaving a trail of bodies, shock and despair through a French Riviera fiesta.
Among the first people killed by the speeding truck on the sidewalk next to Lenval Beach was the middle-aged Muslim woman. Two of her sons and other family members stood, weeping or frozen in stunned silence, around her body, which was covered in a pale blue tartan blanket. Nearby there was another victim, an unidentified man sprawled on the sidewalk next to the beach beneath a bloodied sheet.
So numerous were the bodies that to protect their dignity, people had covered some of them with tablecloths snatched from the restaurants lining the Promenade des Anglais.
It was windy, with a slight, sporadic drizzle, and the celebration of just a few moments earlier was already a distant memory. Crowds had gathered to celebrate Bastille Day, France’s most popular holiday. The woman and the man had been there, with so many others, along the broad seafront promenade, as Nice’s annual fireworks display lit up the night sky.
They were all easy prey — or, in the parlance of an era when this kind of killing has become all too common, they were soft targets. The evening had been filled with bangs and flashes of light as fireworks displays rolled along France’s southern coast, drawing cheers from delighted families whose main worry for much of the day had been whether rain might force the cancellation of the celebration.
This was not a military base, or a guarded government building. It was simply a crowd celebrating in the street. Like the fans at the Bataclan, gunned down in Paris during a concert; or the newspaper staff of Charlie Hebdo; or the people blown up outside the airport in Turkey.
This time, all it took was a murderous driver and a massive truck. Witnesses said the truck had entered the Promenade des Anglais from a side street near the Foundation Lenval children’s hospital, turned left and mounted the sidewalk opposite a row of balconied seaside villas and apartment buildings.
The driver then drove deeper into the city, mowing down victim after victim as the truck plowed through increasingly dense crowds of revelers.
Pierre Roux, whose apartment faces the sea, said he had first thought that the truck was simply out of control. But then he noticed that the lights were off and there was no honking. “Nobody in the way stood a chance,” he said. He had come out of his apartment early Friday to place a burning candle on a white sheet covering a body that was unattended.
As he spoke, heavily armed police officers sealed off a widening perimeter of the city.
Simon Cotteridge, who also lives along the promenade, said he had been watching the fireworks. Just after the display ended, he said, there was “a tremendous thud.” He wondered if it had been some sort of coda to the fireworks show, or perhaps an accident. But then, he said, he saw a dozen bodies on the pavement — and a big crowd of people “running and screaming.”
“It was horrific,” Cotteridge said.
– Sources: Reuters, AFP and AP