Some life has returned along the promenade where terror struck
But it is overwhelmed by sadness
The scene on Nice’s promenade isn’t too much different from normal – at first glance. The sun is shining, the sea is a fabulous deep blue, and the architecture of some of the beachside villas is as stunning as anything the Cote d’Azur can offer.
Then you notice the empty restaurants and the stunned, horrified looks on the faces of locals and tourists alike. For this is a city in post-traumatic shock following Thursday’s terror attack targeting the annual Bastille Day fireworks display. Dozens are dead and injured, including many children.
Walking down the route, I meet Richard, a 25-year-old rickshaw driver from Latvia who was plying his wares when the horror unfolded on Thursday evening.
As the fireworks finished, and families and tourists strolled along the Boulevard des Anglais, Richard saw a truck scorch past him on the beachside road and start to zigzag, aiming at pedestrians both on the road and the sidewalk. “I was really shocked to see him trying to hit people,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it. Everyone was running every direction in panic. I saw about 30 bodies on the ground.”
Even with this harrowing memory, Richard, who declined to give his full name, is back working in exactly the same spot again, just hours later. “I have to send money back to my family.” Words cannot describe how he feels for the “poor parents waiting in there,” he said, pointing to the nearby children’s hospital.
Further down the boulevard, occasionally being diverted by a police cordon onto a busy, parallel road to the north, I meet countless others with similar stories. One man shows us the goose pimples on his arm to prove – even the day after – how horrified he is; another says that when he arrived home on Thursday after seeing “too many bodies” he was shaking with fear. When he woke up on Friday he “hoped the events of the previous night were a dream.” But they were not.
Scores of police officers are stationed along the route, vainly trying to prevent people from taking photographs. But the evidence of the carnage remains on the road: a sheared street lamp that Bouhlel’s vehicle may have hit; surgical gloves that paramedics wore while treating the victims; an abandoned stroller with a doll next to it.
Attack in Nice: Full coverage
Yet life goes on in Nice. Massive yachts glide silently by offshore, staff from high-end hotels stand to attention by the front doors and the town remains busy with tourists. But the talk at tables in cafes and restaurants is of bravery, of near-misses and of horror.
One tourist, Brian Engseng, from Copenhagen, Denmark, shakes his head as he recalls how the happy noises of the fireworks party changed suddenly into screams of terror. Then he realized the vehicle that was causing the panic was heading straight at him. “I grabbed my wife and ran, but luckily the van changed direction.”
The driver then took a sharp right and aimed straight at a crowd of people, including families, standing outside a candy store. “At that point I couldn’t watch any more and turned away,” Engseng said. “It’s really upsetting and terribly sad to think that children had to end their days like that.”
It takes two or three hours to walk the 1.2-mile (1.9-kilometer) route and hear the testimony of so many tearful witnesses. There is anger in Nice too. Many point to what they say is a weak response by the government and police to the terrorists who have repeatedly targeted France – at Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and now Nice.
As if on cue, towards the end of the route, a vast motorcade roars along the empty boulevard, carrying French President Francois Hollande, who has been paying his respects to victims. When a crowd of onlookers learns from a gendarme who is inside the black Citroen with darkened windows, they make their disdain obvious, booing and rolling their eyes.
A few hundred yards further on, at the intersection of Avenue Gustav and the promenade is the point where the attack was finally halted. A large crowd has gathered opposite the television cameras trained on the point where Bouhlel was killed, still inside his truck. Near here, blood from his victims’ remains on the road. It will fade. But the horror of thousands who saw young lives extinguished will remain etched in their memories.