NICE, France — France will once again fly its flags at half-staff to mourn the victims of another deadly terrorist attack on its soil.
At least 84 people were killed when an apparent lone driver of a truck in Nice late Thursday opened fire on a crowd and fatally mowed down people celebrating Bastille Day, the French national holiday.
The Mediterranean city has been left devastated as authorities cover the dead in the street with blue tarpaulins so that emergency vehicles can find them for evacuation.
“France has been struck once again in her flesh, on the 14th of July, on the day of our national celebration,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Friday.
The attacker wanted to “harm the very idea of national unity,” he said, adding solemnly that France is having to learn to live with regular attacks.
Children among the dead
Just hours before the attack, hundreds, if not thousands, had gathered on the famous Promenade des Anglais, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, in a colorful display of fireworks and live music.
But as the last firework fizzled out, the attack was launched, leaving children among the dead. At least 18 people remain in critical condition and the death toll grew through the night.
Valls said that French President Francois Hollande had called for three days of mourning, from Saturday to Monday.
Although the road was cordoned off, the driver managed to drive more than a mile along the packed waterfront strip before being shot by police.
Among the tourists caught up in the attack, three Australians were injured, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said. Two Chinese citizens were also injured, the Chinese consulate in Marseille told CNN.
Two Americans killed
Two Americans died in the attack, the Austin American-Statesman reported Friday. It named the victims as Sean Copeland, 51, and his son, Brodie, 11, from Texas, citing a statement from the family.
U.S. officials confirmed that two Americans were killed in the attack, but did not name them.
Attack on France’s ‘symbol of liberty’
In a national address in the early hours of the morning, Hollande said that it was without doubt a terror attack.
He added that the choice of the day — Bastille Day, when France celebrates its post-French Revolution republic — was particularly poignant.
He said that the day is a “symbol of liberty,” and that “human rights are denied by fanatics and France is quite clearly their target.”
Hollande said that he will travel to Nice on Friday once he has chaired a meeting of the Security and Defense Council.
Valls told reporters Friday that a bill to extend an existing state of emergency would be submitted to parliament by Tuesday.
The measure was in place in the wake of the Paris attacks in November 2015, which left 130 people dead. It was due to expire later this month.
“France is afflicted, but she is strong, and she will always be stronger than the fanatics who want to strike her today,” he said.
So far, no group has claimed responsibility.
Witnesses speak out
Eric Dartell was eating at a restaurant on the street where the incident happened. “You can see wreckage all along the way: a body, bicycles, street lamps and debris everywhere,” he said.
American Dominique Molina, who was watching from a balcony, said the fireworks had just ended and a crowd on the beach was disbanding.
“People were flooding the streets, just walking away from the show, and I heard a lot of loud noises and people were screaming and so to the west, a big moving truck was driving on the promenade, just barreling over people and hitting — running people over.”
She estimated the truck moved at 20 to 25 mph. Molina said her teenage son witnessed the carnage. “It’s something you’re not supposed to see,” she said. “I grabbed my son, I felt like shielding him, protecting him from seeing that. It happened so fast, it was like in slow motion.”
Paul Delane, an American, described the chaos. “All of a sudden, just people, thousands of people, started running in one direction.
“My partner took my hand immediately and we started running with everybody and honestly in my head I had no idea what was going on and the music was so loud and I didn’t really see a truck, but just people running and screaming and crying and people carrying their children, and it was just very frightening.”
Facebook has activated the Safety Check feature for people in and around the area of the attack.
A tourist from Dallas, Kristen Crouch, lamented the climate of violence that spans the globe, from her hometown to the French city, where she was visiting for a friend’s wedding.
“It’s really sad when you’ve been marked safe twice on Facebook in the last week. We shouldn’t live in a world like that,” she said.
“We quickly got back to the hotel and locked the door.”
Anti-terror prosecutors have taken over the investigation, according to BFMTV, citing the prosecutor’s office.
Authorities are attempting to determine whether the identity card of a 31-year-old French-Tunisian found in the truck cab matches the body of the driver in the attack, according to a police source cited by AFP. The driver was a Nice resident, according to the Nice Matin newspaper.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said he was deploying 70 police, medical and technical specialists in order to make sure that the remains of those killed were quickly returned to the families. Hospitals in the city have launched an urgent appeal for blood donors.
France had put intense security in place for Euro 2016, the international soccer tournament that just ended. No major attacks occurred during the event.
A 7.65 caliber handgun was found on the attacker, and authorities also found several fake rifles and fake grenades inside the truck, according to BFMTV.
A source close to the investigation tells CNN that the assailant was known to authorities for petty crime violations, based on a provisional identification of the attacker. French authorities had not opened a counter-terrorism surveillance file on him and he was not known to them for jihadism or Islamist extremism.
French authorities are still investigating the identity of the attacker and comparing the identity card found in the truck to the man police shot dead, according to BFM justice reporter Cecile Ollivier.
Leaders around the world have denounced the brutal incident.
U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement saying, “We stand in solidarity and partnership with France, our oldest ally, as they respond to and recover from this attack.”
The presumptive nominees for the U.S. presidential election also reacted to the attack, taking strikingly different tones.
Republican Donald Trump saying he’d ask for a declaration of war against ISIS while the Democrat candidate-in-waiting Hilary Clinton called for greater intelligence gathering to fight terror groups.
The United Nations condemned what it termed a “barbaric and cowardly” terror attack in Nice.
The U.S. Consulate in Marseille advised U.S. citizens in Nice to call family and friends to notify them that they are safe. The Consulate said it was working with authorities to determine whether any U.S. citizens were injured.