Nice, France – For Toufik Laoubi, what was supposed to be a joyful celebration of France’s national day will remain forever a painful, indelible memory.
The industrial worker from Chambery, in the French Alps, was spending Bastille Day in Nice with his sister and narrowly escaped death in the attack that killed 84 people and injured many more on Thursday.
He had joined thousands of locals and visitors, many of them foreign, on the Promenade des Anglais on the Mediterranean waterfront to watch the fireworks that mark the culmination of Bastille Day festivities on July 14.
As he was trying to make his way into the crowds with his sister at his side, he noticed a large lorry swerve into bystanders, mowing down people in its path.
“It was crushing people,” he recalled. “The truck stopped some 10 metres away from me – that was because a young man got caught on one of the truck’s back wheels and his body was blocking the wheel, eventually forcing the truck to halt.”
He said he and those around him were in shock.
“We didn’t think it was an attack at first,” he said. “Then we heard shots and everyone began running, seeking shelter in hotels or on the beach. I was with my sister and we kept running. After 30 metres, I turned around and thought ‘I should help people. I’m a first aid provider.'”
Laoubi, who is trained in first aid, spotted staff from the nearby Hotel Palais de la Mediterranee, who had rushed outside carrying bed sheets, with which they proceeded to cover the dead bodies that were on the ground.
“As I moved on, I realised the gravity of the situation. There were dozens of bodies. That’s when I told myself it was a terrorist attack,” he said. “The truck was zigzagging along the promenade to deliberately hit people. How can you do that?”
He says it will be a while before he forgets the scenes he witnessed.
“There was a couple who realised that their granddaughter was lying on the ground. She must have been 16. And the woman was pulling on her arm and screaming, ‘Wake up, wake up!”
“When I see that, I understand that people who are racist became even more racist,” said Laoubi, who is a French Muslim of Algerian descent.
On Friday, Laoubi went for a consultation at the psychological counselling services set up by the authorities in Nice to help those who, like him, witnessed the carnage first hand.
“No human being is prepared to go through such a thing, to see people who have been crushed like this, even children,” he said. “The majority of people were dead. The only thing I could do for them was to cover them.”
Laoubi has also been reflecting on the level of security the authorities had deployed for the celebrations.
“How could such a large truck get through? There wasn’t a single police officer,” he said. “They arrived later, they had neutralised the driver, so that was a good thing. They didn’t know if there were more [attackers], even they were overwhelmed.”
He is now preparing to fly back home, a 50-minute flight to Geneva, in Switzerland, and then back across the border to Chambery. He is looking forward to rejoining his wife, Samia, and his three-year-old son.
Samia, a civil servant, had to stay at home because she couldn’t take time off work for a family break in Nice.
“She didn’t want me to take our son because she was concerned about the flight,” he said. “In fact, she had a premonition .”