His sister was 600 feet from hell, just close enough to hear the screams. A pair of friends jumped into a nearby restaurant and hid as the truck roared past and gunfire popped overhead, a tortured silence broken only by wail of sirens and pleas for a mercy that never came.
Another friend was standing in front of the Hotel Negresco in Nice, the Mediterranean Sea lapping in the distance. When he heard the shots, the man launched into a sprint, leaping from la Promenade des Anglais and tumbling several feet onto the beach below, fracturing an ankle and a rib in the process.
“The truck was stopped only 300 feet away,” Maxmilien Chastanet, a sophomore fencer at Ohio State, said via email from his native France. “He feared for his life when he heard the shootings.
“When he came back on to the scene, he saw (dead) bodies that he will never forget. He was hurt but felt extremely lucky when he saw the bloodbath.”
On July 14, a man later identified as 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhle drove a truck into civilians celebrating Bastille Day along the Promenade in Nice, a terror attack claimed by ISIS and the third such incident to rock the country over the past 19 months. The driver was shot dead by police in the firefight that followed; five suspects are being held in custody as alleged conspirators.
A reported 84 were killed and more than 300 injured as a result of the incident, the damage so pronounced that, as of Tuesday, police and hospital officials had yet to identify more than half the bodies.
“I feel very lucky to say that my family, friends and myself are all safe,” Chastanet told LandOf10.com. “I wasn’t injured, even though the tragedy that happened hit me very hard.”
And yet the hits keep coming. One week, Nice. The next, Munich. We cannot bear to look at CNN, yet can’t bring ourselves to tear away. The world becomes smaller by the minute, its dangers more real by the day.
A sophomore foilist and the 2016 NCAA men’s champion, Chastanet grew up a few minutes from the Promenade and attended classes at the International School, some five miles west of the shootings.
For many Americans, the images of panic and the stream of tears hit too close to home. For Max, it was home.
“We were mad, sad and we still couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It seemed unreal that such a horror could happen in our dear city, where nothing of that scale had happened since we came.”
The Buckeyes sophomore was eating dinner with his family at the time of the incident, just up the road. When they first heard the rapid pop-pop-pops in the distance, they thought it to be another round of fireworks.
Then the phone rang.
“We heard about what happened when my sister called us,” Chastanet recalled. “We understood something bad had happened but we still didn’t really realize the scale.
“My parents and I jumped in the car and drove to the city before everything got blocked. I was extremely anxious, nervous and scared because I wasn’t sure where my sister was and what had happened to her. At the time she only told us a truck was crushing people and that there were shotguns.
“While the attack was happening, my sister was in the center of Nice and had just finished eating at a restaurant with a friend.”
The pair were heading toward la Promenade des Anglais to see the fireworks when a huge wall of people, panicked, began racing toward them, “children crying and people yelling ‘RUN!’ … they are only 18 years old and had seen such a fearful crowd running everywhere.
“The granddaughter of a neighbor also was at the location of the attack and a few of her colleagues from work died. From the little she told me about what happened, she mentioned that many people who were affected tried to cope by offering their help, donating their blood or taking care of victims. That allows them to think about something else other than them.”
America is in an election year, when social media turns into the digital equivalent of a long, tense holiday dinner with the extended family. Between courses we sit with arms folded in defiance, ideological fault lines splintering into chasms, feeling for wounds with one hand while reaching for a salt shaker with the other. One nation, under God, inconvincible.
Meanwhile, Nice la Belle, Nice the Beautiful, is just trying to find its feet again. A proud city walking with a collective limp.
“I can still feel a tension, a fear that something could happen again,” Chastanet said. “We feel unsafe despite the many officers in the streets.
“The city is much more deserted. In the mall, there were much (fewer) people walking around. I asked a shop if they saw a big change in the numbers of customers, and they told me that they had been very affected the days after the attack, but that customers are starting to come back again.”
Charlie Hebdo. Nice. The French are resilient, their culture and beauty and spirit — joie de vivre — belying centuries of scar tissue, layers of blood and conflict lining the soul like rings on a tall, ancient tree.
But every headline feels like a rabbit punch to the kidneys, every wreath a reminder. The body count wears on a collective psyche.
“People are mad and angry at our government,” Chastanet said, “because they consider that the government didn’t take appropriate measures to make our population safe. The citizens are united and try to make sure that everyone who was affected is taken care of.”
Donations. Blood. Flowers. Hugs. Many hands, one heartbeat.
“I am proud of my city and I shouldn’t feel ashamed of what happened,” Chastanet said.
“Before that tragedy, I didn’t realize of how close terrorism was. Terrorism put aside, I am happy to live in the United States and to be a Buckeye at the Ohio State University. It is now for me a new life and my new home.”
His new home, his new life — and new friends — were worried, too. Teammates from multiple continents reached out. Chastanet said he made a point to click on the mark-yourself-as-safe button on Facebook to try to quell the creeping unease.
“Within the hours that followed the tragedy, many friends from around the world messaged me … Many of my friends were really sorry and scared but they were all very relieved when they learned I was all right,” Chastanet recalled.
“My fencing coach in Ohio messaged me right away. It helped (me) feel better to read those warm messages. I also bombarded all my friends living in Nice to make sure they were well and safe. I was feeling extremely relieved that I could be with my family and that no one was missing.
“I kept thinking of how worse the night could have been for us. A week before the attack, the (sniper) tragedy hit Dallas. During that time, the (USA) Fencing (National Championships) were taking place and many of my friends and teammates were there. I was horrified with what happened and was hoping they were all all right.”
They were. La Promenade will be, too. Eventually.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler