It was Bastille Day and the beginning of our final week in Nice. I had spent the day meandering by myself. I felt a cold coming on, so I bought some medicine. Still, it was hard to feel sick in such a beautiful place. I strolled past the children playing in the fountains, working on my gelato and enjoying the feeling of the breeze catching the skirt of my long blue dress that I had bought the day before. The air was balmy and fine, but there were clouds coming in from the sea.
Suddenly, I saw the guys coming up the sidewalk toward me. I realized that this was my second (maybe third) gelato of the day, the first of which they’d seen me eat, so I tried to hide behind a pole to avoid their scorn.
“Dakota, is that you?” Dammit. “Is that more of that flower-flavored gelato?”
“So, what if it is?” I retorted.
We rode the bus together back to the dorms. I was chatting with an EIA guy from Berkeley. “Why do you wear that ring?” he asked, pointing out my blue opal ring on my left ring finger. “Are you married?” he teased. I had gotten it as a purity ring when I was twelve, but I now wore it mainly because I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t, and, in a way, it reminded me who I was. However, I didn’t feel like telling him that.
“It’s lucky,” I said.
“How do you know it’s lucky?”
“Well, I’m still here, aren’t I?” I smiled sardonically. “And if it turns out not to be, they can identify my body with it.”
“Take it off and see if the bus crashes!” he goaded.
“Nah. Not today.”
It was now evening and I was starting to feel stuffier with a cold. However, the Bastille Day fireworks at the beach was the place to be, and I didn’t intend to miss it. I resolved with Will and Jason, who were coming with me, that I would watch and then turn in early for the night.
As we headed out from the dorms, we found the Australians having a rager of a party. They couldn’t be coaxed to come with us, but many other students were going, in varying groups and levels of inebriation.
We arrived at the promenade and preferred to stroll down it instead of finding a spot in the masses of spectators who were lining the promenade and the beach. The crowd was so vast that they closed off the road beside it to allow safe passage for the families with wheelchairs and strollers. As we plodded lazily down the walk, we listened to the fireworks crackle overhead and people-watched. “I don’t see a single French flag,” I noted.
“Yeah,” said Jason, “it doesn’t seem very patriotic.”
Indeed, it was difficult to tell tourists from locals. There were families with small children and young people with liquor bottles, there were women wearing hijab and women wearing very little, but there was almost nothing to indicate that we were in France on Bastille Day. I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about it.
“Maybe they’re celebrating EU Day,” Will remarked. We laughed in agreement.
The fireworks continued for a good while, long enough for us to walk a large portion of the promenade, which was about four miles long. I was surprised that we were already nearing the center of town. At last, the fireworks ended, but we continued with our walk as the families collected themselves to prepare to leave. We were bickering drolly, which had become our primary source of entertainment over these last two weeks.
Suddenly, there was an eruption of hundreds of collective screams from behind and another dreadful sound - like a huge metal barrel bouncing down a cliffside. I turned around and saw a white delivery truck careening towards us down the promenade. It was mowing over every person it encountered at high speed, bodies rolling under the wheels and flinging up from the windshield like ragdolls.
I only had a moment to act, but everything seemed to slow down. First, I wondered if it was an out-of-control truck with a passed out driver. But then I realized it was weaving on and off the road with purpose, speeding up to hit people. And, within that tiny rift in time before I started running, I knew exactly what this was.
It was now so close that the windshield filled much of my vision. I looked for the man inside, but there was nothing but darkness. I turned and ran for my life. Will and Jason were just ahead of me, and I could feel it just behind. It was merciless. Maybe I was going to die…. We jumped over a low barrier onto the metal roof of a beach club. The boys were about to jump to the rocky shore ten feet below. I was right behind them, also ready to jump. I didn’t want to die like this - broken legs or even death below was a better option.
I must have heard it pass by, because I grabbed the boys’ shirts and pulled them back. There was another rift in time - a terrible quiet. Not the welcome kind of quiet after a storm, but that two full seconds of silence that follows when a small child has fallen; two seconds to assess the damage.
And then it was over, and there was a sound far worse than the silence, more horrific than anything I had ever heard. The only way I could describe it is pain. Ultimate pain.
We shifted on the roof to see a stretch of bodies staggered every ten feet or so, filling the promenade as far as the eye could see. There was a body lying just a few feet away from me, right where I had been standing before I ran. I had never seen a dead person before... It was just the outline of a dark pile, not shaped like a person at all - so desolate, it was hard to believe - he - had ever been alive. From that moment forward, whenever I encountered the word “dead”, this image would come to mind.
The loved ones emerged from the fringes, falling over these heaps and shrieking. “Shit,” said my voice. “We need to get out of here – down to the beach.” If I was thinking anything, it was that this may not be over, and we were too exposed up here. But I think it was more that every atom of my being wanted to get as far away from this place as possible and never come back.
We found a staircase nearby and reached the dark beach below, where people were running and screaming in all directions. Then, there was the sound of gunshots. “There’s a shooter coming down the beach!” someone screamed. This started a mass stampede up the beach. People were pushing each other through the bottlenecks where the fences of the clubs met the shoreline, like cattle through a shoot, and some were getting trampled in the water.
Now away from the horrors above, I was in survival mode. My body felt light with the adrenaline coursing through my veins, and I worked to control my breathing as we jogged and slipped over the rugged footing. I fell hard on the rocks, my blue dress tangling around my knees. I got up and continued running. I had to stay calm. I had to think. Was there actually a shooter? Probably not - the shots had stopped. But maybe. Should we stay with the crowd, or should we get in the shadows?
Then, I spotted my app designer clinging to a fence and crying hysterically. “I can’t find my friend!!!” she kept screaming over and over. She was all alone.
“Hey Diane!” I reached her side and grabbed her arm to stabilize her.
“I can’t find my friend - he was there but then he was just gone, and I think my foot is broken - I got dragged by the bodies!!” She was violently shivering.
“I’m sure your friend is fine, Diane. We’ll find him - but we need to get you out of here first.” I stared at her intensely, trying to break through. “Can you walk?” Her answer was a definite no, but I told her she could and asked Jason to help me carry her. It was a slow, painful process, half dragging her toward the nearest staircase while I offered words of encouragement and Jason dialed her friend with his free hand to quell her fear. We were only halfway there, and she was getting heavier. I noticed the lights of emergency vehicles above. “Will!” I called. He turned around. “Can you go see if there’s help?” What a stupid question to ask. We had all seen what was up there, and there would be no help for a girl with a broken foot. I knew this, and yet I asked him to go anyway.... He went without hesitation.
He returned a few moments later, shaking his head. “They can’t help us,” he said.
It would be many months later when he shared with me the things he had seen up there and the profound impact it had on his life. I would cry and apologize, revealing the truth that had been haunting me for all those months: that I had asked him to do a thing which I could never have done myself. That I had only pretended to be brave.
At last, we made it to the staircase. I sat with her and tried to warm her shaking body, talking to her as one would comfort a child. I felt the need to hold her together like the shattered pieces of a vase... I removed the sandal gingerly from her swelling foot and assured her that it didn’t look bad - though I didn’t have a clue whether it did or not. Jason got a text confirming her friend’s safety, and this calmed her a bit. A few of her Berkeley friends showed up, and they intended to stay with her until help arrived. Will, Jason, and I resumed our trek up the beach.
I had never run so far, for so long, without tiring. We kept in the shadows, away from the crowd, as we searched in vain for an opening where the sirens and shrieking stopped. It seemed like miles before we finally reached the end of it. When we did, we slipped up the staircase and darted across the road, not daring to look back.
It was only once we were within the undisturbed darkness of the side streets that we felt we could slow down. We were lost, but just kept heading in the general direction of the campus using Jason’s GPS. A light rain was falling and it was the coldest night we’d seen so far in Nice.
We had seen no one else until we encountered two young men in an alleyway. They looked like they were up to no good, but so do all young men in dark alleyways. “Are you lost?” they asked us in weak English.
“Uh, not really,” was our unconvincing answer.
“Let me see your phone,” one of them said to Jason. Oh boy, I thought, what a perfect way to end the evening…. “You are almost there,” he said after examining the map. “You just have to cut across that street over there and turn left.” He handed Jason back his phone and they went on their merry way.
“Thank you!” we called out weakly. I wondered if they had any idea what had happened tonight. It was hard to believe anyone in the whole world didn’t know what had happened. It felt like there was nowhere else but here. I also wondered if my family knew yet...There was a tremendous urgency to get back to Wi-Fi so I could tell them I was okay.
Up one last hill, and we made it to the gate of the dorms. There was an Australian student there waiting to let us in with a cup of warm water and a clipboard. “Welcome back,” she said. “Please tell me your names and the names of anyone else you’ve seen alive.”