A family night out that ended in horror and carnage by sea
It took no more than five minutes for Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel to bring terror to the streets of Nice. But his rampage has destroyed families’ lives forever, write Robert Mendick and Camilla Turner
Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30
Nobody really paid much attention to the white refrigerated lorry as it approached the Promenade des Anglais. The unmarked 19-ton truck had, according to reports, even been stopped by police who had asked the driver what he was doing there.
He replied that he was delivering ice creams and would be moving on soon.
What in fact Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was about to deliver was murder on a massive scale.
The Promenade des Anglais was crowded. Families had packed the seafront promenade in Nice to witness the annual spectacular fireworks display to celebrate Bastille Day.
It had just turned 10.30pm, the fireworks had finished and 30,000 people, inevitably many of them children, were simply “milling around”, enjoying a warm summer’s evening by the Mediterranean. At about 10.45pm, the truck, according to witnesses, began its 1.2-mile journey, from west to east, that would leave at least 84 men, women and children dead and 202 injured.
Fifty of the injured are children, who were being treated at the Lenval children’s hospital.
Bouhlel, 31, a father-of-three, began his killing spree near this children’s hospital, the point at which he turned on to the Promenade des Anglais.
“He rode up onto the promenade and piled into the crowd,” said Damien Allemand, a journalist for the newspaper Nice-Matin, who saw the horror unfold.
“A fraction of a second later, an enormous white truck came along at a crazy speed, turning the wheel to mow down the maximum number of people. I saw bodies flying like bowling pins along its route. Heard noises, cries that I will never forget.”
Video footage shows the lorry slowing down and then speeding up through the crowds. The vehicle had been rented two days before at Via Location car rental in Saint Laurent du Var on the outskirts of Nice.
Bouhlel, a delivery driver, had parked the lorry in an eastern district of Nice on Wednesday and then cycled from his home to collect it at about 9.30pm on the day of the attack. An hour later CCTV footage caught him heading towards the promenade.
Witnesses described the truck “zigzagging” as it hunted down its targets. Survivors jumped on to the beach and into the sea to escape or ran into hotels and cafes on the other side of the road. Among about 1,500 people who sought refuge at a beach restaurant was a heavily pregnant woman, who gave birth there with the help of a doctor who happened to be there.
The manager, Robert Malacarne, said the woman was taken from the open-air beach area into the air-conditioned kitchen when she went into labour. “There was so much confusion I don’t even know if it was a boy or a girl,” he said.
According to one French newspaper, the first victim to die was Fatima Charrihi, a mother of seven children. “She wore the veil, practising an Islam of the middle ground. A real Islam. Not that of the terrorists,” said her son, Hamza.
The French authorities, unprepared and unable to do anything, watched as the lorry just kept going.
“Security guards were on their walkie-talkies, and I only speak a little bit of French but you could hear words being mumbled, ‘souci, souci’ like suicide and you’re just thinking ‘oh my gosh what is going on’,” said Grace Ann Morrow, an American tourist. Another witness, who saw the truck’s rampage along the promenade from a hotel balcony, said: “I watched it deliberately run over a pram.”
The promenade had been closed to vehicles from 3pm to allow tourists and locals to enjoy the festivities. But the lorry smashed through at least one temporary road barrier to reach the road.
Richard Gutjahr, a journalist for German TV channel ARD, said he had watched the lorry approaching.
“All of a sudden, with all the people, all the families celebrating, this truck was approaching and it was approaching very slowly so it didn’t really rush but you could ask yourself ‘What is a truck doing in the heart of this?’?
“From that moment on the rampage took place. The vehicle accelerated and ran in a very odd way right in the middle of the crowd.
“The panic really kicked in when the gunshots were fired and it went on for 15 to 20 seconds of gunfire from several guns. That was the moment when everyone understood that it was not just an ordinary accident.”
A motorcyclist attempted to jump aboard the lorry and take control. Video footage shows him clinging to the canvas side of the vehicle before he loses his grip and falls under its wheels. Officers were firing at the truck.
Michael Zarzycki, 64, a salesman from Vancouver, said: “There was a motorcyclist who tried to get up to him, he was tugging at the door.
“They were driving alongside each other. The motorcyclist was trying to get up near the cab but he did not have a good enough grip and then he fell and was dragged below the tyres. He wouldn’t have survived.”
Mr Zarzycki added: “Everyone was scrambling and trying to get away from the driver. I have never seen anything like it, just to see the devastation and the carnage and the fact that nobody could stop him.” At one point, Bouhlel deliberately turned to strike a group on a zebra crossing before continuing down the middle of the road.
“I saw a lady who was lying on her side. They didn’t have a blanket to cover her with and she was still there this morning,” he said.
Franck Sidoli said he had seen a child die. “Then the truck stopped, we were just five metres away. A woman was there, she lost her son. Her son was on the ground, bleeding,” he said.
Some had narrow escapes. A 20-year-old, who gave her name as Fanny, said as she waited for news of her friends at a hospital: “We were all very happy, ready to celebrate all night long. I saw a truck driving into the pedestrian area, going very fast and zigzagging. The truck pushed me to the side.
“When I opened my eyes I saw faces I didn’t know and started asking for help. Some of my friends were not so lucky. They are having operations as we speak.”
James Kelly, 58, from south-west London, said he dodged out of the lorry’s path and was just three feet away when it ploughed through the crowds. “I could see people bouncing off the front of it,” he said. “That is when I thought, this guy is trying to kill people, it’s not just a driver out of control.
“As the lorry came past me it was hitting people, I saw about 10 or 15 people die in front of me.
“I saw a couple of people who went under the wheels, they ended up as a ball of rags. One teenage girl was clearly dead.”
One unsubstantiated report claimed that Bouhlel was shouting “Allahu akbar”, but while French prosecutors last night described him as a terrorist they were still investigating whether he was part of a wider network.
Mickael Haddid, 30, who lives on the promenade, was on the beach when dozens of people started jumping over the barrier. “Lots of people on the beach were injured,” he said. “I saw two girls jump straight over the barrier, two or three metres down, into the water. There were lots of leg injuries and lots of blood.”
Kartik Bhanot, 26, from Essex, who was on holiday with his parents and sister, said he at first thought it was a drunk driver.
“I saw on my left this huge grey lorry, travelling at least 60mph, about five to 10 metres from me. It was ploughing through people. I saw bodies flipped and continuous loud bangs,” he said. “I thought it might have been a drunk driver and just an accident but there were swathes of bodies lying on the ground on the other side of the promenade.
At the Hotel Negresco, Bouhlel began firing at three police officers trying to stop him. The police shot back.
Suzy Wargniez, 65, from Nice, who was sitting at a cafe on the promenade, said she was convinced that the driver was taking aim as he drove. “It was shooting, shooting,” she said.
The driver’s advance was slowed by another unnamed member of the public who leapt onto the vehicle and wrestled with the driver as it momentarily got stuck after hitting a pergola.
Eric Ciotti, a French MP, said: “He jumped onto the lorry to neutralise the terrorist at the wheel with his bare hands. It was at this moment that the killer used his weapon, shooting at the man, who got back down off the cabin.
“Two police officers who were also shot at by the mad driver, returned fire and the terrorist died.”
The lorry had been finally halted level with the Palais de la Mediteranee, one of Nice’s most glamorous hotels.
Nader El-Shafei, an Egyptian tourist, filmed the final confrontation in footage released to the media.
Some reports suggested the killer was finally stopped by a policewoman who climbed on to the windscreen of the lorry before shooting him through the glass. Photographs showed the van riddled with at least 50 bullet holes.
Mr El-Shafei said: “I saw him taking out his gun and trying to shoot a policeman when he saw the police coming towards him.
“I took out my cell phone and I just filmed everything, the shooting and everything that he hit.
“And after that I was running with the people on the beach, running away because they thought he could explode, or he had a bomb or something, explode the vehicle and kill all the people around.” Mr El-Shafei added: “I saw him for like one minute, face to face but he was not looking at me, he was not looking at the window.
‘He was just very nervous inside, looking for something around him and I kept yelling at him, waving with my hands to stop, and trying to tell him that there is 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 cell phone. I thought he will call the ambulance but I was wrong because he just picked up his gun and he started to shoot the police.
“They just killed him right away, they didn’t wait to negotiate or something. They just opened fire on him.”
Francois Molins, the state prosecutor, said that during a search of the truck officers found a “. 765-calibre automatic pistol, a charger, cartridges, along with a second fake automatic pistol, two fake assault rifles and a fake grenade”.
It had taken Bouhlel no more than five minutes to bring terror to the streets of Nice. But his rampage has destroyed families’ lives forever.
Driver's 15 minutes of murder
It took as little as 15 minutes for the driver of the truck to carry out the heinous attack in Nice on Thursday evening.
This is how the horrific night unfolded.
22.30 (21.30 Irish time): The attacker boards a large white truck on the outskirts of Nice and loads his bicycle into the vehicle, according to regional government chief Christian Estrosi. A police source later identifies the attacker as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel (31), a man known to police for petty crime and violence - but not for suspected Islamist militancy. He is described as a Tunisian resident of Nice.
22.00: A fireworks display attended by some 30,000 people, including many children, begins on the Promenade des Anglais, a seafront boulevard lined with palm trees and wide walking areas.
Approx. 22.30: The fireworks show ends. Soon afterwards the attacker enters the Promenade des Anglais in the white truck and drives down a stretch of about 2km fronting the "Vieille Ville" old quarter where many of the victims were killed.
The driver starts swerving to hit people on the roadway and on the wide pavements that overlook the strand and sea. According to witness accounts, the truck of some 20 tonnes accelerates as it hurtles into the crowded area near a tourist office. Mr Estrosi later says the truck was travelling at about 90kmh.
The area of most destruction is about 500m between the Negresco hotel and the tourist office where four lanes of roadway were closed to traffic in each direction, full of pedestrians.
22.45-23.00: The driver is first stopped when a person jumped onto the front of the vehicle to try to halt it, according to reports. The driver is then shot dead by police.