Bastille Attack: 'I saw bodies flying like bowling pins'

By Sarah Kaplan

Witnesses tell of the horror of bodies scattering through the air as driver turns festivities into terror.
Police talk to witnesses outside the hotel Negresco, which was used to treat the injured. Picture / AP
Police talk to witnesses outside the hotel Negresco, which was used to treat the injured. Picture / AP

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 honour of France's favourite holiday. Light and music spilled from restaurants, cheers punctuated the bursts of fireworks.

Allemand, a reporter for Nice Matin, a local newspaper, was on his way to leave when he heard the crack of gunshots cut through the revelry. A fraction of a second later, a huge white truck went roaring past. It ploughed 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 newspaper's website. The "truck of death", as he called it, had passed just several metres 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.

The attack in the French Riviera city of Nice yesterday left at least 84 people dead and 18 more 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.

The bloody attack came at the end of one of France's most important holidays, Bastille Day, which came at the start of the French Revolution 226 years ago. All around the country, people marked the occasion with military parades and fireworks displays.

At 10.30pm local time, in a matter of moments, the celebration came to 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.

The show had just ended, and people were beginning to disperse, when the truck came barrelling 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 [50km/h]."

"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."

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, although there were reports they were an inactive grenade and fake rifles.

The crowd, which contained tourists and Nice natives, fled on to 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 restaurant and waited for the volley of gunshots to end.

When he emerged, the promenade was empty, he wrote: "No noise. Not a siren. No cars." He walked back toward the spot where the truck had come to rest. The windshield was riddled with bullets. Nearby, a man was crying.

"The dead are everywhere," the man said.

"He was right," Allemand wrote. "Just behind him, bodies every 5m in the road, limbs ... blood."

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 2 or 3m high," he said. "In front of my restaurant there were at least 10 people laying on the street, dead."

The High Club, a nightclub next door, had been turned into a field hospital, he said. So had the lobby of a swanky hotel called Negresco.

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.

Allande 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."

Driver was known to local police

The driver of the truck used to attack Bastille Day celebrations in Nice is believed to have been a 30-year-old French-Tunisian criminal well known to the police for armed attacks.

"He was known to the police for violence, and using weapons, but had no direct links with terrorism," said an investigating source. "His identity card was found in the lorry. He had French and Tunisian nationality."

He is believed to have been a resident of Nice. A search of his vehicle uncovered a pistol, a larger gun, and also a number of fake weapons and grenades.

He boarded the truck "in the hills of Nice" before driving down to the promenade, according to CCTV footage, regional president Christian Estrosi said.

As of last night there had been no claims of responsibility for the attack, which is being considered an act of terrorism.

There have also been no claims of accomplices, but Estrosi said the investigation should focus on finding anyone the man worked with leading up to the attack.

"Attacks aren't prepared alone. Attacks are prepared with accomplices," Estrosi said.

"There is a chain of complicity. I expect it to be unveiled, discovered and kept up to date."

- Telegraph Group Ltd, Washington Post

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