Eyewitness in Nice: “A truck, then screams.”
By Nelson Graves
“We saw people hit and debris flying. The truck plowed into the crowd, and then we heard screaming. It was really a horrible experience.”
So recalls News-Decoder Editor Robert Holloway, who was only meters away from the speeding truck that killed at least 84 people in Nice on Thursday when it plowed through a crowd of revelers on France’s Bastille Day.
The gunman at the wheel of the heavy truck, identified by media as a 31-year-old Tunisian-born Frenchman, appeared to open fire before officers shot him dead. Scores of people were injured, some seriously, in what President François Hollande called a terrorist act.
Holloway and his wife, Sylvie, were returning to their daughter Marina’s apartment in Nice after a display of fireworks on the Riviera city’s beachfront, which is bordered by a wide walkway called the Promenade des Anglais, just above the beach.
Robert and Sylvia were walking westward on the Promenade, with the Mediterranean Sea to their left and a line of parked cars to their right. It was about 10:45 pm. There was light traffic on the street to their right and a bit of rain when Robert noticed the truck ahead of them.
“He had just driven up onto the Promenade. He came up onto the Promenade, over the curb at high speed, at least 80 kilometers (50 miles) an hour. The truck came hurtling towards us. We had to quickly get out of the way,” Holloway said the morning after.
“If we had been on the other side, we would not have had a chance.”
“The truck appeared out of nowhere. I saw it rocking back and forth. It was 12 feet away from us. I screamed, ‘Move!’ We dived between parked cars in a shower of debris, glass and plastic. I had to avert my face. We were all running and did not look behind. We managed to get across the street.
“If we had been on the other side of the Promenade, we would not have had a chance. We were within three seconds of being killed. It was very, very scary.”
Holloway said tens of thousands of people had gathered a bit earlier to watch the fireworks, which were shot from boats about 300 yards off the beach. The crowd had amassed at a section of the Promenade slightly to the east of where the Holloways saw the truck. There, traffic had been blocked and there was security at the time.
The fireworks ended at about 10:25 pm, Holloway said, and people started walking away. Robert and Sylvie were slightly ahead of the main part of the crowd. That is when the truck suddenly appeared.
“We were walking quickly to return home,” Holloway said. “There were lots of us walking home, past food stands and people roasting nuts.”
“The truck accelerated, it was rocking slightly, probably because it had just come up over the curb. The driver probably was not in complete control. He would have had to avoid bikes and other things. There is not a huge amount of space.
“We were ahead of the crowd. There were several dozen people ahead of us. We were very, very lucky. We had three seconds to get away. If we had been one minute further back, we would not have had a chance.”
“Once the truck was on the Promenade, there was nothing to stop it.”
Holloway said the main part of the crowd was about 50 meters behind him. “Beyond that, people would not have stood a chance. There were too many people.”
Holloway remembered seeing a couple behind them earlier, with a stroller and a toddler next to them. “If they were still behind us when the truck came, they would not have stood a chance,” he said.
Not knowing if there had been gunmen on the loose, the Holloways dashed back to Marina’s apartment, where Robert quickly called their 21-year-old daughter, who was at a party elsewhere in Nice, to establish that she was safe.
Asked if he thought security forces could have prevented the attack, Holloway noted that Nice has wide, open streets. “Once the truck was on the Promenade, there was nothing to stop it.”
Despite the close call with death, Holloway was glad to be in Nice, for his daughter’s sake.
Fifteen years ago on September 11, Marina was a young girl on her way to school in New York, where her father was posted for Agence France-Presse, when terrorists flying airliners brought down that city’s Twin Towers.
In January 2015, she was living in Paris when gunmen burst into the office of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people.
About one hour before attackers killed 89 people at the Bataclan music hall last November 13, Marina had walked through the nearby Place de la République in Paris, where she was living at the time. She and her friends used to frequent one of the cafés near the Bataclan where gunmen killed dozens that same night.
Then last night, she was in Nice.
“She has had far more direct experience with terrorism than most people in the Western world or than people deserve,” her father said. “I’m glad for her sake that we are here.”
Robert Holloway is News-Decoder Editor. A British-born French citizen, he had a long career at Agence France-Presse as a journalist and editor before becoming director of the AFP Foundation, the international media training arm of the global news agency. He joined AFP in 1988 and served as Sydney bureau chief, foreign editor, head of the English desk in Paris, United Nations correspondent in New York, deputy managing editor and acting editor in chief.