- The Washington Times - Friday, July 15, 2016

NICE, France — A blanket of shock, sadness and fear hung thick in the air here Friday, as residents and tourists struggled to comprehend the horror that left 84 people, including an American father and son, dead on Thursday night when a large truck mowed down crowds of Bastille Day revelers along the city’s vast beachfront promenade.

As officials in Paris declared three days of national mourning and an extension of the expiring national security emergency state, local residents here were pondering how a few minutes of terror might change things forever.

“Nice is supposed to be the most security-controlled city in France,” Bruno Balliana, a 56-year-old resident of the city, said as he stood near a makeshift police barricade blocking pedestrians from getting too close to the scattered piles of debris and bloodstains that were still visible along parts of the promenade Friday afternoon.

A partly crushed baby carriage lay on its side along one stretch. Two bicycles lay mashed against a concrete embankment nearby, where shards of shattered glass and abandoned handbags were also still strewn about — a macabre scene in the heart of the French Riviera.

“We will try to continue life here, but when this happens, it’s just shock,” Mr. Balliana told The Washington Times. “There are no words.”

The man’s eyes then welled with tears as he pulled a small white candle from his satchel that he said he planned to light and leave at the scene of what authorities here are calling the third major terrorist attack on France in less two years.

Others left flowers, which were piling higher throughout the day at various points along the more than mile-long stretch of road and sidewalk, where the white truck, similar to a tractor-trailer, repeatedly swerved into screaming and scrambling pedestrians before police shot and killed the driver.

French and Tunisian news outlets identified the driver Friday as 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a delivery truck driver, who had lived in France since roughly 2005 but was born and raised in the northeastern Tunisian town of Msaken. Tunisian officials told the Reuters news agency the driver had not been known to authorities for any past links to terrorism.

While local officials said Friday that Bouhlel was a dual citizen of France and Tunisia, that he has recently resided in Nice, and that he had a petty criminal record in the southern French city, such details remained unconfirmed by national authorities as of Friday afternoon.

It was also not clear whether Bouhlel acted alone or was part of a terrorist cell of some kind, such as those tied to the Syria- and Iraq-based Islamic State terror group, which carried out the coordinated Paris attacks that left 130 people dead in November. As early as 2010, a terror instructional manual produced by al Qaeda outlined an attack plan using a truck or large vehicle at a public gathering that was in many ways eerily similar to Thursday night’s horror, although investigators had not yet been able to establish a clear link.

There were reports that a police unit acting on intelligence from the attack scene had raided an apartment believed to be tied to Bouhlel during the early hours of Friday morning, but found he has not lived there in three years.

According to The Associated Press, three neighbors said the apartment was occupied by Bouhlel’s estranged wife, who was led away by authorities. The apartment showed visible signs of having been forced in, including a hole where the lock had been, the news agency reported.

French President Francois Hollande said Friday that the Nice attack was done “to satisfy the cruelty of an individual, and maybe a group.”

But there was no clear claim of responsibility from any terrorist group as of Friday afternoon. While recent attacks in Paris, Brussels and Orlando were all followed by statements of approval on social media channels linked to the Islamic State, the immediate cyber traffic in the wake of the Nice attack has been more elusive.

The New York Times reported that a new channel created Thursday on the encrypted phone app Telegram, which acts as a news wire of the Islamic State, posted a message including a single word — France — followed by a smiley face.

Mr. Hollande, who spoke after visiting a hospital in Nice where dozens of injured were being treated, said France is “facing a struggle which will be long.”

He appeared to be referring to France’s growing national fight against terrorism, which has escalated since a January 2015 attack saw Islamic extremist gunmen kill 11 people at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

But he also spoke specifically about the victims of Thursday night’s attack, saying that some 50 hospitalized people were clinging between life and death on Friday afternoon, suggesting that the death toll could continue to rise during the coming days.

American father and son

Relatives say a father and son from Texas, 51-year-old Sean Copeland and his 11-year-old son Brodie, were among those who died on Thursday night.

“We are heartbroken and in shock over the loss of Brodie Copeland, an amazing son and brother who lit up our lives, and Sean Copeland, a wonderful husband and father,” the family said in a statement, according to The Austin American Statesman. “They are so loved.”

A pallor of sadness hovered Friday over the main children’s hospital in Nice, which is situated near the promenade and within a block of where the first victims were run over by the large white truck on Thursday night.

The children’s hospital said it was treating some 50 children and adolescents injured in the attack, including two who died during or after surgery.

Stephanie Simpson, the communications director for the Lenval foundation hospital, told the Associated Press that the injuries included fractures and head injuries and that the victims were aged 18 or under.

“Some are still life and death,” Ms. Simpson said, although she said she could not say exact number of children hospitalized or the ages of those who died, according to the AP account.

A few blocks from the children’s hospital, a group of women sat weary with fear and shock in the courtyard of a small hotel overlooking the promenade.

“It all happened just after 10 p.m,” said one of the women, a 48-year-old named Yana, who added that she and the others where there for a small family reunion vacation. Many of the victims were just departing the beach after the end of the traditional fireworks show in celebration of Bastille Day.

“We had been right out there with the crowds just moments before, but we came back to the hotel because I was feeling tired,” said the woman, who asked to be identified by her first name only.

“Then we heard it. At first we looked out the window and thought maybe a motorcycle had crashed over the wall on the edge of the promenade. But then everyone was screaming and running. It was hysteria,” she said. “We didn’t want to think it was terrorism. We were hoping it was just an accident.”

“There was panic, a very big panic, and it was so noisy,” Yana added. “Then we heard the pop, pop, pop. It sounded like a Kalashnikov rifle. I don’t know if that was the police shooting the driver.”

“It’s so sad,” added another woman, Yana’s daughter, who asked to be identified only as Mariana. “We are still shaking today. It’s like we’re in a state of shock.”

The tearful Mr. Balliana summed up a city’s and a nation’s frustration, remarking, “We’re fed up about what’s happening in France.”

He added, “The level of security is going to need to be similar to what we we have in Israel.”

 


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