Tuesday 24 April 2018

In their own chilling words - eyewitnesses recount the horror of Bastille Day massacre

Heart breaking accounts by those who were on the promenade in Nice on Thursday night piece together full story of a murderous rampage - but also incidents of bravery and heroism

A picture taken on July 15, 2016 shows the truck, riddled with bullets, that was driven by a man through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day being towed away by breakdown lorry in the French Riviera city of Nice. Photo: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images
A picture taken on July 15, 2016 shows the truck, riddled with bullets, that was driven by a man through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day being towed away by breakdown lorry in the French Riviera city of Nice. Photo: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

They were young and old, rich and not so rich. They were Muslim, Christians, Europeans, Americans, Africans and Australian. It was a multicultural crowd that thronged the Promenade Des Anglais to watch the fireworks display in celebration of Bastille Day.

They were all targets to a petty criminal, who beat his wife and had serious psychiatric problems, behind the wheel of a 19-tonne truck. Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian, had reportedly rented it the previous Monday and should have had it back by Wednesday.

Instead on Thursday he loaded the cabin with guns and grenades and drove his deadly machine into the city. He turned left from the Children's Hospital on to the Promenade des Anglais, embarking on a murderous rampage that has horrified the world. The truck stuck out like a sore thumb in the city that hour of the evening. Trucks are not allowed along the promenade, but according to reports, he told police who stopped him that he was delivering ice-cream.

Philip Ezergailis, 23, from Galway, could hear it behind him. Philip, who was working in France for the summer, had been to a pool party and got a bus into town with a group of 10 or 12 pals. They got a bus into town. It looked "like Salthill Prom, a bit wider", he said.

"We were walking down the prom, heard a bit of noise behind us, turned around, the lorry was driving along the promenade and we were kind of like 'Shit, there is a lorry on the promenade, why isn't it stopping?" he said. "It was about a second or two where we didn't know what was happening then once it started swerving and hitting people we kind of realised what was happening."

By then Bouhlel had already claimed his first victims. Behind him on the promenade, Fatima Charrihi, a Muslim mother of seven, lay on the road. Her son Hamza later told media that his brother tried to resuscitate her but a doctor told them later that she died on the spot.

Bodies piled up as Bouhlel ploughed on.

Damien Allemande, a French journalist, was at the Hi-Club, a popular beach bar about a mile along the route taken by the killer. Allemande later wrote online about the "cool evening" he spent on the beach watching the fireworks. When they ended, he said, everyone got up to make their way back up the steps to the street, "all squished like sardines". Damien "zigzagged" his way through the crowds to get to his scooter when he heard screams in the distance.

"A fraction of a second later, a huge white truck was racing at a crazy speed into people and steering abruptly in order to hit as many people as possible. This deathly truck passed just a few feet away from me and I did not realise it. I saw bodies fly like bowling pins upon its passage. I heard noises, screams which I will never forget. I was petrified. I did not move. I followed this hearse with my eyes. Panic was all around me. People were running, screaming, crying. Then I realised what was happening and I ran with them."

Allemande ran with everyone else towards, Crocodile, a cafe bar on the promenade, for shelter. He wrote about the panicked screams that rang out all around him: "Run for cover." "Don't stay here." "Where is my son? Where is my son?"

Allemande then went outside: "The promenade was deserted. No noise. No sirens. Not a single car. I then crossed the median to return to where the truck passed. I ran into Raymond, in his 50s, in tears, who told me: "There are dead people everywhere." He was right. Right behind him, every 15 feet there were lifeless bodies, body parts... Blood. Whimpering.

"The beach attendants were all first on the scene. They brought water for the injured and towels which they laid where there was no more hope."

Allemande got to his scooter "to get far away from this hell. As I went back up the promenade, I grasped the full extent of the tragedy.

"Bodies and injured people covered the sidewalk all the way to Lenval. The first ambulances were beginning to arrive... This evening was a total horror."

Seconds after careering past Allemande, the truck reached the Hotel Negresco. Here, a Moroccan student and his friend stood outside the five-star hotel taking pictures, along with scores of others. The front of the hotel was one of the best vantage points for the spectacular fireworks display.

Imad Daffaaoui later told reporters how he heard screaming coming from behind. Seconds later, he saw a truck coming towards him. "I saw a huge truck, crushing over people...It was running over people. Some people were trying to get out of the way. Some people were in shock."

At first, he thought it was a drunk driver. "I was trying to figure out why people were running and screaming. But after five or 10 seconds, I saw a lot of bodies on the street."

He started 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," he said. The truck ploughed on, crashing through the bench just 20cm from Imad.

"I just closed my eyes. It was so close. I was just waiting to die. I was in shock," he said.

He got up and started running, along with the woman he had fallen on.

The truck ploughed on through the crowd, "crushing people on its way" but Imad could not watch. "I had to get away from it," said Imad.

Ray MacSharry, a former Fianna Fail minister and European Commissioner, had dined that night at the Hotel Negresco and afterwards enjoyed the fireworks as they blazed outside.

"It was a very excellent fireworks display which lasted some 30 minutes or so. As it was over, people were beginning to move off in all directions, then out of the blue, screaming and roaring occurred all over the place," he told The Irish Times.

In the panic, Mr MacSharry decided to set off for his hotel, which was 2km in the direction the truck had just come from.

He didn't see the truck, but he saw the bodies left in its wake and in the distance, he could hear gunfire.

"The truck had obviously come down in the opposite direction and people were dead on the roadside opposite me. It was terrible, and seeing all their families and friends trying to help them," he said.

"It appeared to me there were shots. I think I did hear them but with the hysteria of people, we were not sure...It was horrific to see so many people in a state of terror and not knowing whether there were other gunmen around and running into hotels, offices and rooms. We just kept going back to our hotel."

The gunfire may have been by Bouhlel, who reportedly started shooting at police officers as he ploughed on past Hotel Negresco. According to The New York Times, the police officers shot back.

Nader El Shafei, from Cairo, was in the lobby of the Hotel Mercure. "He smashed into a lot of people...I was waving to the driver, 'Stop' there's a girl under the truck'," he said. But the driver took no notice. "He was not concentrating on what was going on. He was looking back and forth.

"I saw him pick up a phone, I thought, and at this point I still think it's an accident and then I see he pulls out a gun. It looked like a handgun, a Glock. He pulled it out and I understood something was wrong...and then I see the police shooting him."

Everyone started to flee, but El Shafei could not. "I was just frozen."

Somewhere along this route, Paddy Mullan, from Derry, and his girlfriend watched in horror from across the street as the truck mounted a footpath full of screaming pedestrians. They were having dinner in a restaurant on the last night of their holiday and had come outside to watch the fireworks. They were heading back to their table when they saw the carnage unfold.

"This lorry just mounted the kerb across the street from us, and the next thing all you could hear was banging and shouting and screaming," Mullan told his local radio station.

It "came out of nowhere" and ploughed into the crowd, he said.

"There were people running up, screaming and coming into the restaurant trying to get away, so we didn't know what it was...We didn't know if it was people on the ground shooting or if there was a bomb or what was going on - we were just trying to get away," he said.

Mullan and his girlfriend "bailed out" of the restaurant through a side exit and ran into an apartment complex behind the building.

"We were pushing all the buzzers to try and get into the apartment blocks," he said. "Eventually, we got in," he said. "I've never seen fear like it in all my life and probably never will again."

The wave of panic spread along the promenade towards the Old Town further on. Witnesses described seeing a lot of people running in the distance but not knowing why.

David Coady, an Australian news producer based in London, tweeted his followers at 9.55pm: "Might be nothing. But just joined throngs running away from the promenade in Nice, France. Just after Bastille Day fireworks."

Read more: 'There were children lying dead all over the place' - Irish family's horror as they're caught in Nice attack

Read more: Terror in Nice: 'The truck was just cutting through the crowds'

Read more: Islamic State claim responsibility for Nice truck attack as French police arrest five

Seconds later, a journalist friend with ABC tweeted Coady back: "Initial reports Dave that a car ran into some pedestrians before people started running."

At 10.04pm, Coady replied: "Ah. Saw a truck amongst people when the screaming started. About 50m away."

Later, he told reporters: "I looked through the throngs of crowd, and I looked towards a truck, and I thought it was out of place, was among the crowd, and then I started hearing screaming. I turned and started to run with the crowd away from the screaming. Where I'm staying is just about one block away from where that incident has happened...I wasn't sure what they were, but every time I heard a bang, the crowd would scream, would run, perhaps faster. People were tripping over in the commotion, there was a lot of panic at the time. I was running past restaurants where people had got up and left their meals."

Kevin Motamedi, a physician from Denver who was in Nice on a six-week tour of Europe, told US media: "We were actually talking about how that basically would have been the perfect set-up for a terrorist attack, because you had wild explosions, and it's hard to differentiate gunfire from fireworks from a bomb going off," he later told reporters.

"I remember looking up and seeing a wave of people with completely panic-stricken faces running towards me at full steam screaming at the top of their lungs, trampling baby strollers, and my first instinct was to run in that exact same direction. As soon as I took off, we started hearing gunshots. That made me run even faster."

In the chaos, ordinary people became heroes and survivors.

Timothy Fournier, 27, a tobacconist from Paris who was on holiday, saved his pregnant wife by pushing her out of the path of the lorry just before it struck him. A heavily pregnant woman hiding with 1,500 others in a beach restaurant on the promenade gave birth in the air-conditioned kitchen, with the help of a doctor who happened to be there.

Bouhlel was by now on the final run of his murderous journey, with police and members of the public making heroic attempts to stop him.

Michael Zarzycki, 64, a salesman from Vancouver, was staying at the Westminster Hotel. He told reporters about a motorcyclist who drove alongside Bouhlel's truck, and tried to get into the cabin.

"There was a motorcyclist who tried to get up to him. Other people in the hotel said he was tugging at the door. They were driving alongside each other. He was trying to get up near the cab but did not have a good enough grip and then he fell and was dragged below the tyres. He wouldn't have survived.

"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."

According to Erik Viotti, a local politician, who was quoted in the Mirror, a second person then broke into the cabin of the truck and attacked Bouhlel.

"It's at that moment that the police were able to neutralise the terrorist...The attacker fired at the police officers and at the person who tried to stop him. I won't forget the look of the policewoman who intercepted the killer."

Bouhlel's truck ground to a halt outside the Casino du Palais Hotel, riddled with bullets. He had killed 84 people, 10 of them children, and injured 202. Fifty of those are children, five of whom are critical.

Yesterday, Isil claimed Bouhlel as one of its own. It claimed he "carried out the operation in response to calls to target nationals of states that are part of the coalition fighting Islamic State".

His father, his psychiatrist and others described a man with psychological problems who showed no interest in religion.

According to France's interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, if Bouhlel he was an Islamist militant, he must have become radicalised very quickly.

Sunday Independent

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