A night in Nice

Ian MacCormack, right, with a friend, Zach Kay, in Oslo, Norway, a few weeks before the night of the attack in Nice. –Courtesy Ian MacCormack

I recently graduated from college, and headed to Europe to travel for a month. Before embarking on my wander-about, I was subjected to plenty of warnings from older relatives: “Be careful. Europe isn’t safe these days.” Weighing these (possibly paranoid) words against my own uninformed sense of danger and wishful thinking, I decided that I wouldn’t let the 0.1 percent chance that I would be caught in a terrorist attack hinder my youthful gallivanting. The possibility of such an event, however, was never far from my mind during the course of my trip. I was admittedly a bit uneasy about joining large crowds (e.g. the public viewing of the Euro Cup game in Berlin). Seeing groups of fully armed soldiers casually wandering the streets of Florence and Nice served as a reminder of the slim but present possibility of violence.

But by the time Bastille Day in Nice rolled around, I had mostly let my concerns slide away. My sore throat, born from weeks spent in discount hostels of questionable sanitation, became a more pressing issue. I was also reassured enough by the massive police presence.

The hours leading up to the celebration were pleasant. My traveling companion and I had a carefree French meal at a hole-in-the-wall local restaurant. We tried local wine and absinthe, and made a new friend on the back terrace of our hostel. The three of us decided to make our way down to the Promenade des Anglais to take in the musical acts, watch the fireworks, and try to make up for missed Fourth of July celebrations.

Fast-forward to the finale of the fireworks show. We are seated at the end of a jetty, across the promenade from Jardin Albert 1er. The sky is filled with bursts of blue, white, and red light. The final tricolor mortar explodes, and we begin to slowly migrate through the crowd back across the jetty, through the sand, and up the staircase to the promenade. We are halfway up the staircase, encased in a dense crowd, when a “pop-pop-pop” rings out from a few hundred meters down the beach, in front of the Hotel Negresco. Initially I assume someone is setting off their own firecrackers, until a massive wave of people comes rushing in our direction across the beach and down the promenade, suggesting my assumptions are incorrect. Confusion and fear sweeps the crowd. A chill rushes down my spine as I watch the wave of bodies and realize what might be happening. The people around us begin to shuffle back and forth in panic. No direction seems safe, but we cut through the herd and make it up the stairs. (Though in retrospect, jumping in the Mediterranean and swimming away might have been the best bet.)

What we see on the promenade after climbing the stairs only confuses us more. To my right, I see a crowd of people facing a stage, dancing, reassuring me that perhaps this was all a false alarm. To my left (the direction of Hotel Negresco), fleeing people with panicked faces. We try to convince ourselves that there is probably nothing wrong, and start our trek back to the hotel (near the Nice train station) along the Avenue des Phocéens. As we turn right onto Rue Saint-François de Paule, a large group sprints around the corner. Expecting at any second to see a dozen men wielding Kalashnikovs, we turn around and sprint east along the promenade. We are unsure where to run. As far as we know, there are attackers around every corner. Soon we duck into a hotel before eventually taking to the streets again and making our way to the Nice police headquarters. By 1 am, we are given the go-ahead to take side streets back to our hotel. On the way back, a passing car drives over a manhole cover, making a loud “clank” sound, and we all duck for cover. Amazingly, my throat didn’t bother me at all during this time.

In hindsight, we could have immediately returned to our hotel safely, but of course we didn’t know this at the time. The most jarring aspect of the experience — beyond hearing the gunshots and screams, and witnessing mass hysteria — was our ignorance. It took us several hours to learn that someone had driven a truck into the crowd, several hours during which rumors and speculation filled the air. Was there only one attacker? What if there are more of them throughout the city? What if the initial strike was only the first phase of the attack? Was there even an attack? What if they’ve planted bombs in buildings along the promenade? Is anywhere safe? Though our anxiety about further violence that night had mostly settled after arriving at the police station, I think the fear left a lasting impression. A number of people I spoke to in Europe seemed to have started planning their lives around the possibility of an attack: “I would have gone to the Euro Cup game, but with big, crowded events like that, something could happen, so I stayed home.” Unfortunately, I think a bit of that sentiment rubbed off on me and my fellow travelers that night. Hopefully things don’t continue to get worse before they get better, and we can go back to making our choices without worrying about whether or not someone is planning to mow us down in a semi truck.

Ian MacCormack is a recent graduate of Cornell University. He lives in Oak Bluffs, and will be pursuing a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Chicago in the fall. He plans to continue traveling the world.