Hobbling on crutches in the Fondation Lenval children’s hospital in Nice on Friday, Kimberley Torres, 16, describes how she excitedly left her home on Thursday evening with a girlfriend to watch the Bastille Day fireworks on the city’s grand seafront boulevard, the Promenade Des Anglais. At 10:45 p.m., their night out became a terrifying nightmare, from which Torres was lucky to escape alive. “I saw people with severed heads, with severed legs,” she says, weeping as she clutched her mother’s arm. “I called my mom and cried, “Come, Come!”
As people in Nice absorb the full horror of what happened on Thursday night, there is one feature that distinguishes the Bastille Day attack from the two mass-casualty attacks in Paris last year, in January and November: So many of the victims were children. On Friday President Francois Hollande said in Nice that there had been 10 children among the 84 people killed when a driver ploughed a huge commercial truck into the crowds on the promenade, mowing them down as he barreled along at top speed for more than one mile. The death toll could well rise, since 50 people are “between life and death” according to Hollande. Two of those are small children, currently fighting for their lives in Lenval hospital.
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Since Thursday night, the children’s hospital has been thrust into the grim task of saving some of Nice’s youngest residents. The French have long made Bastille Day—which falls during summer recess—a family holiday, in which children and parents celebrate together. Hundreds, then, were on the Promenade Des Anglais on Thursday night, and the slaughter did not respect age. In the gruesome aftermath of the attack, one iconic photograph showed a small girl lying dead under a space blanket, with her doll lying alongside her.
At Lenval hospital, about 50 children, and some of their parents, were admitted overnight, and two children among them died in the hospital. Two others are now clinging to life. That includes a boy, believed to be about 10, whom paramedics brought in alone, critically injured—and whose identity remains unknown. As the hours pass and no one has looked for him, staff have begun to resign themselves to the possibility that the child might remain unclaimed. “I think it is possible that the parents were killed,” says Christian Richelme, a staff pediatrician at Lenval hospital.
Richelme says he had taken vacation beginning on Thursday, but rushed back to work as soon as news broke of the attack. (Indeed, under a French policy called the “white plan,” health personnel are required to automatically report for duty at the nearest hospital in case of an emergency.) So within minutes of the attack, Lenval doctors and nurses poured through the doors. About 50 patients were rushed in from the promenade, which is one block from the hospital, most suffering trauma injuries like multiple bone fractures. Several had far more severe head wounds.
To the staff, the devastation was something they had trained for—but not for Bastille Day. Instead, in the weeks leading up to the European Football Championships, which ran from June 10 to July 10, Lenval had conducted numerous drills for staff about what to do in the event of a terror attack. It included how to handle dozens of serious injuries simultaneously—an event they thought was possible during the footbal tournament, which French officials warned was a prime target for attack. “Nice had been identified as one of the main terrorist hubs after Paris,” says the hospital’s spokeswoman Stephanie Simpson. “We had weeks of simulations for this.”
Richelme says he felt a huge sense of relief once the final football match, between France and Portugal last Sunday, was over. He booked his vacation, believing the staff could finally breath easy. “The Euro [championship] was over, and phew,” Richelme says. All over Nice, people visibly relaxed, and let their guard down. “That must be the reason for the attack,” he says.
Now, since Thursday night, he has watched children and their parents in the hospital, deeply traumatized—not just from physical injuries, but from the brutality they have witnessed close. “There is a lot of psychological shock,” he says. “There are children who have lost their father or their mother.” Likewise, Simpson says she has seen parents stagger in, “totally stunned and in shock.” And the worst could be yet to come.