‘I saw the bodies...I saw a man get hit,’ says Irishman in Nice

'It shouldn’t have happened. On the best of days, you wouldn’t be able to drive anything that size down the promenade'

Lara Marlowe, Irish Times Paris Correspondent, reports from the scene in Nice where an attack took place during celebrations for Bastille Day. Pictures: Reuters


Twenty-two year-old Eoin Staunton from Tourmakeady near Westport came to work at Ma Nolan’s pub, a block from the Promenade des Anglais, on Friday morning, sleepless and having received the fright of his young life.

“We were walking back from a party at a hotel near the airport when we heard people screaming behind us. We turned and saw the crowd of people running towards us, with the truck advancing at such speed behind them. I think I saw two people fall,” Staunton said.

Less than 12 hours later, Staunton is still dazed. “It all happened so quickly,” he keeps repeating. “My girlfriend Lydia and I were ahead of the others. We were all spread out and we were trying to find each other. It didn’t click that it was a terrorist attack...It was just panic... ”

The group of friends took refuge on the rocky beach below the promenade. “We tried to climb back up but the police told us to stay there. That’s when I saw the bodies. One here and one here,” he says, gesturing to left and right with his hands. “I saw a man get hit...”

Staunton’s small group sought shelter in the Neptune Plage restaurant, along with 50 other people. “They closed the doors to keep us all in. They had the telly on. We were all trying to get internet to call our relatives. We were so lucky we all got away. My friend Philip was just feet away from getting hit... It’s crazy....”

Staunton arrived in Nice shortly before the Bataclan massacre in Paris last November, after finishing a degree in Irish and geography. His curly mop of hair hangs in his eyes. He’s sunburned and wears a claddagh ring. In two weeks, he’ll return to the safety of the west of Ireland.

Ma Nolan’s is the centre of Irish life on the Côte d’Azur, with three pubs in Cannes and Nice. Thady Nolan (48), from Portlaoise, founded the pub with a French business partner 11 years go. On Friday morning he worked the mobile phone to make sure that 60 staff, about half of them Irish, were safe.

“Bastille Day night is a huge party here, a family occasion,” Nolan said. “Any Irish who are in Nice go to it, but we don’t know if any were hurt.”

Virtually everyone I spoke to said they had expected trouble during the Euro 2016 football championship, which ended last Sunday. “People had dropped their guard after the Euros. We had been waiting for something to happen,” Nolan said.

The Promenade des Anglais was “such an easy target,” Nolan continued. “I don’t understand how you could get a truck down there when the promenade was closed and there were police everywhere. It doesn’t look like they were doing much.”

The driver, a 31-year-old Tunisian resident in France, managed to travel 1.5km and kill 84 people before he was stopped. “Someone messed up big time,” Nolan says.

His business partner, Frenchman Christophe Souques (48), has strong connections in the local police. “He had rented the truck and pre-parked it on the promenade, before the road was closed for the fireworks,” Souques says.

“There’s going to be a blame game going on today,” Nolan continues. “It shouldn’t have happened. On the best of days, you wouldn’t be able to drive anything that size down the promenade. Unfortunately our politicians don’t have the tools to stop it.”

People running

Souques was running the pub on Thursday night when people started running past. At first he thought they were cold, or rushing to their cars to avoid the traffic jam after the end of the fireworks. It was his friend Olivier Castillo (55), an orthopaedic surgeon, who told him there had been a terrorist attack.

Castillo rushed to the Clinique Saint Georges, where he works. He saw mostly broken bones; ankles, a foot, ribs, arms, and one severe abdominal injury. “A guy in his 40s walked in, completely haggard. He didn’t know where he was. It was the first time I’d seen such a state of shock, as if he’s seen the devil. I saw a young woman in her late 20s in the same state.”

More than 50 injured children have been hospitalised, Agence France Presse reported.

French doctors received special training in advance of the Euros, Castillo said. In particular, they self-trained on the internet to treat war wounds, particularly Kalashnikov bullets like those that killed most of the 130 victims in Paris eight months ago.

No one had imagined that a truck would be the weapon of mass murder. “This means that anyone can become an improvised terrorist,” Castillo said.

It was difficult to sort truth from rumour, Souques said. “People came to hide here in Ma Nolan’s. We brought everyone in from the terrace. Some said there was shooting in the casino. Some said there was an explosion on the Place Massena. Others spoke of a hostage taking at the Buffalo Grill. None of that was true.”

At first, there was “total panic,” with “people running every which way,” Souques said. “Inside the pub, people were crying.” He put all his efforts into calming the 200 people who sheltered in Ma Nolan’s. “Every 20 minutes or so, I would stand on the stage where the bands usually play, and tell them everything we knew.”

A man walked alone down the empty street outside, his arms spread wide. Police laser sights marked a half dozen red target spots on his chest. “He said, ‘I’m looking for the town hall. My son is there. I don’t give a damn if they shoot me. I have to find my son,” Souques recounts.

A police colonel stuck his head into Ma Nolan’s to say “Stay inside. Turn off the lights”. Between 12.30 and 1am, the police asked everyone to leave, single file, as they evacuated the entire area.

Christian Estrosi, the president of the region and deputy mayor of Nice who was the first to report that there were dozens of dead on Thursday night, was criticised in the past for speaking of a “fifth column” of Arab Muslims in France.

“Estrosi was right,” Souques said. “I cannot understand such hatred. This guy wanted to kill everyone; young, old, babies. I cannot conceive of it. This is not happening over there, in the Middle East; it’s here, at home; as if our society was diseased, like gangrene.”

Like other people in Nice, Souques was not surprised that jihad has struck his city. “I was surprised by the method and the number of dead,” he said. “Not that we were attacked.”