NICE, France – A lawyer was strolling with her mother, friends and a colleague along the beachfront boulevard in Nice to celebrate France’s national day. Four young sisters from Poland had spent a day sightseeing. Two Russian students were on a summer break. And a Texas family, on vacation with young children, was taking in some of Europe’s classic sights. The bright lights of the packed boardwalk glittered along the bay like a string of stars.
Those lights would mark a pathway of murder and destruction that night of July 14, 2016. Shortly after the end of a fireworks display, a 19-ton truck careered through the crowds for 2 kilometers like a snowplow, hitting person after person.
The final death toll was 86, including 15 children and adolescents, while 450 others were injured.
Eight people go on trial on Monday in a special French terrorism court accused of helping the attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who left a gruesome trail of crushed and mangled bodies across 15 city blocks. Bouhlel himself was killed by police the same night.
“It was like on a battlefield,” said Jean Claude Hubler, a survivor and an eyewitness to the horrific attack that holiday Thursday. He rushed to the boardwalk to help after hearing the desperate screams of people who had been cheering and laughing and dancing on the beach a minute before.
“There were people lying on the ground everywhere, some of them were still alive, screaming,” Hubler said. As he waited for the ambulances to arrive, he kneeled down beside a man and a woman as they lay dying on the pavement, in a pool of blood and surrounded by crushed and mangled bodies.
“I was holding her hand on her last breath,” Hubler said.
Three suspects have been charged with terrorist conspiracy for alleged links to the attacker. Five others face other criminal charges, including for allegedly providing arms to the assailant. If convicted, they face sentences ranging from 5 years to life in prison. The verdict is expected in December.
Investigators did not find evidence that any of the suspects were directly involved in the murderous rampage on that hot summer night in 2016.
Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian with French residency, was the lone attacker, and is considered solely responsible for the deaths 86 people, including 33 foreigners from Poland, the United States, Russia, Algeria, Tunisia, Switzerland and elsewhere.
Myriam Bellazouz, the lawyer, lived a few blocks from Nice’s boardwalk. She was strolling along it with her mother on the night of the attack and was killed. It took friends and colleagues three days of frantic searching around the traumatized city and pleas on social media to find her remains.
Only two of the four Chrzanowska sisters, on vacation from Poland, returned home alive.
When the truck sped through the crowd, one of the students from Moscow, Viktoria Savachenko, couldn’t get out of the way in time and was killed. American Sean Copeland, the father of the family from a town near Austin, Texas, also died in the attack along with his 11-year-old son, Brodie.
Christophe Lyon is the sole survivor of an extended French family that had gathered in Nice for the Bastille Day celebrations. His parents, Gisele and Germain Lyon, his wife, Veronique, her parents Francois and Christiane Locatelli and their grandson Mickael Pellegrini, all died in the attack. Lyon is listed among dozens of witnesses, survivors and victims’ family members who will later this month testify in the Paris court to the horrific events of that night.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the carnage. However, French prosecutors said that while Bouhlel had been inspired by the extremist group’s propaganda, investigators found no evidence that IS orchestrated the attack.
Eight months before the Nice attack, on Nov. 13, 2015, a 20-member team of battle-hardened Islamic State extremists, spread around Paris to mount coordinated attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, cafes and the national stadium, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds.
After nine months of trial, the lone survivor of the murderous group that had terrorized the French capital, Salah Abdeslam, was in June convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole for the deadliest peacetime attack in France’s history.
The trial of the eights suspects in the Nice attack will take place in the same Paris courtroom as the proceedings against Abdeslam. French law mandates trials of terrorism are held in the capital.
The proceedings will be broadcast live to the Acropolis Convention Center in Nice for those victims’ family members and general public not traveling to Paris. Audio of the trial will also be available online, with a 30-minute delay.
Many survivors and those mourning loved ones brace themselves for reliving the traumatic events during the trial. For others, the proceedings – although far away from the city that is still reeling from the bloodshed and loss – are an opportunity to recount publicly their personal horrors inflicted that night and to listen to countless acts of bravery, humanity and compassion among strangers.
With the perpetrator dead, few expect to get justice.
Audrey Borla, who lost her twin sister, Laura, will travel to Paris to face the group of eight suspects. She wants to tell them how she’s survived the past six years without the woman she calls her “other half,” and how she plans to live a full life for many years even without her.
“You took my sister away from me, but you are not going to make me stop living,” Borla said in a interview with broadcaster France 3.
“You are not going to make me give up on life.”