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Scores Dead After Truck Plows Into Bastille Day Crowd In France

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Bastille Day is France's equivalent of our July Fourth. It happens on July 14. And that is the reason a huge crowd was watching fireworks last night on an oceanfront promenade. They were in Nice, the oceanfront resort. And early reports suggest that all it really required to throw that crowd into chaos was a single attacker at the wheel of a truck. Authorities say the man drove through the crowd and killed at least 84 people before police killed the driver. President Francois Hollande spoke to his nation as he's had to do again and again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Through interpreter) France is deeply afflicted by this new tragedy. France is horrified by what has just occurred.

INSKEEP: The French president, speaking there through an interpreter. Now NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is in Nice, France. She's on the line. And, Eleanor, what have you been able to see?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, Steve, it's a very jarring scene of contrasts. I arrived in Nice this morning. It's a beautiful, sunny day. There are palm trees. You look out at the blue, sparkling Mediterranean Sea, and you see the umbrellas on the beach. But you can't go there because it is completely blocked off by police, and they've got barriers set up. But you can see people dressed in hazmat suits picking up evidence, and police with face masks on. I saw a policeman with two or three baby carriages. So it's very jarring because it's obviously a crime scene on such a beautiful day in high season. And people are sort of walking around just stunned.

INSKEEP: Well, talk me through that crime scene. So there's the beach, then there's this promenade, this kind of paved area that people were walking in last night.

BEARDSLEY: Right, well, there's - you've got the beach. And then you have sort of a pedestrian promenade. And then you have a place for cars. And so it was all completely full. And it's lined by palm trees. It was Bastille Day. There were bands playing. There were fireworks going off. Just thousands of people were out. And a guy driving what French media's saying like, 55, 60 miles an hour just plows through the crowd and went for one mile - so you didn't hear it at first because there's music and so much noise - and just mowed people down. And, you know, people couldn't get out of the way. And it was just a horror scene. And those who could, you know, started screaming and running. You know, somebody described that the music finally stopped, and people realized something horrible was going on. But it was just sheer chaos and panic.

INSKEEP: I understand you have a recording of one of the witnesses of the attack.

BEARDSLEY: Yes, absolutely. This is one person describing it. This is Eric Drattell. He's actually American, living in London, and he's on vacation in Nice with his wife.

ERIC DRATTELL: You go from having an absolutely marvelous time to sheer terror in the blink of an eye, literally. I mean, there was the spectacular fireworks show. And then, all of a sudden, this happens, and people are screaming. And my wife's comment to me later about people diving off of the promenade - she said it was like a zombie attack. People were literally diving for their lives...

INSKEEP: And trying to get away from this truck. Now, the driver - what is known about him?

BEARDSLEY: What is known is that the ID card found in the truck matches the identity of the person shot dead behind the wheel. But we don't know yet officially who that is. Police shot him. It's not easy to stop a vehicle that's going, you know, 60 miles an hour. But the windshield was shot up. He was finally stopped and killed.

And it's still - we don't know if he has an accomplice. He could have just been acting alone. He rented this truck. He knew there would be crowds out. He may have planned this all by himself. But there were grenades and guns and explosives found in the back of the truck. But he didn't apparently use them. There was shooting, but we think it was just police shooting at him, and he may have shot from the window. Many things remain to be cleared up. But it seems that the people were just killed with the vehicle.

INSKEEP: He may have opened fire, but the essential weapon here...

BEARDSLEY: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Was the truck. Now...

BEARDSLEY: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...Has anyone claimed responsibility for this attack?

BEARDSLEY: To my knowledge, no. But, you know, just walking around here, Steve, people are stunned. Nice is a small, calm, lovely little city. And, you know, I guess people are used to seeing what happened in Paris twice. But they never thought it would happen here and in this way no one could imagine.

INSKEEP: And thanks for the reminder, Eleanor, that there have been two huge attacks on Paris within the last couple of years. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley covered those attacks and is now covering the attack in Nice, France. And we'll continue hearing from her throughout the day. Eleanor, thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.