The heartbreak of it all

Nice, France -- The dread began to fill me when I heard the sirens. Too loud. Then I saw the columns of fire trucks. Too many. Something wasn't right.

It was a few days after the end of the Euro, when we all took a collective sigh of relief. Throughout the championship, including the final that I covered in Paris, we were all afraid that attackers would strike, so there was always tension in the background.

But nothing happened, so after the final we all left Paris for our respective homes relaxed, looking forward to the summer holiday season. Even the president seemed to validate our tranquility when he announced on July 14, French national day, that the state of emergency that had been in place since the deadly November attacks in Paris would not be extended.

So on the evening of Bastille Day, I had a pleasant, relaxing time shooting the annual fireworks in Nice. Everyone loves a fireworks display. Especially families with kids. Especially in such a tourist hub. Especially at the height of the summer holiday season. The seaside promenade was jam packed.

I shot plenty of photos but, knowing that the focus is usually on Paris, sent just one to the desk -- the fireworks with bolts of lightning behind them. Then I went home.

Revelers had been watching the annual Bastille Day fireworks display, which this year was accompanied by lightning, when the attacker struck. (AFP / Valery Hache)

Ten minutes after walking through the door of my apartment in the hills overlooking the city, I heard the sirens and saw the fire truck columns. I began to sense that something wasn’t right, grabbed my cameras and headed back to my scooter. A journalist friend called. “Something serious has happened on the Promenade des Anglais.” The city’s main thoroughfare.

I called the photo desk in Paris, the bureau in Marseille, hopped on my scooter and headed down. I drove as far as I could, then left the scooter and continued on foot.

Police officers patrol and carry out checks in the centre of French Riviera town of Nice, after a van drove into a crowd watching a fireworks display on July 14, 2016.After the attack. (AFP / Valery Hache)

I walk into a scene of pure panic.

Hundreds of people are running in all different directions. Some are screaming. Some are crying. “Terrorists!” “There are terrorists!” “They are shooting!” “Terrorists in Nice!” I hear gunfire, but don’t know where it’s coming from.

I walk further along, trying to get my bearings, to figure out what’s going on. Police are starting to cordon off the place. I see a truck, its windshield riddled with bullets, surrounded by police. I stop and get some shots.

The bullet-riddled windshield of the truck that ploughed into and drove through the crowd. (AFP / Valery Hache)

I stay for only about 10 seconds. Noone bothers me. People are running everywhere. Some tell me that a little bit further there are people on the ground. I start to head there. But my first preoccupation is to send the photos that I have already taken. I still don’t know what has happened. I still don’t know there are 80-plus people dead.

The mobile network is saturated of course. It takes me 15 to 20 minutes to finally send my photos to the desk in Paris. The shot of the truck is the one that you see on today’s front pages -- that’s the truck that ploughed into the revelers and drove through the crowd for up to two kilometers, running over anyone unlucky enough to get caught in its way.

After sending the photos I continue walking. Now the whole place is sealed off, you can’t get anywhere. People are still in panic. Some people hug. I see people sobbing, walking slowly, dazed. The lucky ones who escaped.

People react in the French Riviera town of Nice on July 15, 2016, after a van drove into a crowd watching a fireworks display. (AFP / Valery Hache)

I am now in the area behind the truck and there are bodies everywhere. They’re covered in sheets, some blue, some white. I take pictures, but can’t really believe what I am seeing in my viewfinder. Bodies strewn all along Nice’s main street. “There are terrorists in the streets of Nice,” a police officer tells me.

A police officer stands next to a dead body covered with a blue sheet on the Promenade des Anglais seafront in the French Riviera town of Nice on July 15, 2016, after a van drove into a crowd watching a fireworks display.A body of one of the victims lies on the ground. (AFP / Valery Hache)

I am a journalist and we journalists knew there was a risk of this. It was in the back of our minds throughout the weeks of the Euro tournament. But the Euro went off without a hitch and now I find myself in Nice -- touristy, beachy, laid-back Nice -- and there are bodies strewn all over the street.

The body of one of the victims lies on the ground. (AFP / Valery Hache)

Nice is a tourist magnet, not just for foreigners, but for the French as well. It’s July 14th. There are tons of people who come here. Never for a second did I imagine that there would be an attack in Nice, four days after the end of the Euro. That the main street would be littered with bodies.

Some are tiny bodies. Kids. Their parents must have been so happy to give their kids a treat and bring them to see the fireworks on July 14th. And that’s the heartbreak of it all...

This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.

(AFP Graphics)


Valery Hache