Mich. college visitors recount chaos in Nice

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Samantha Panetta of Royal Oak arrived late to the fireworks show off the Promenade des Anglais boardwalk in Nice, France, to celebrate Bastille Day on Thursday evening.

Grand Valley State students in Nice are studying French language and culture.

She came with her roommates from Switzerland and Germany to meet classmates from Grand Valley State University studying abroad this summer, but they could not reach them on the beach with the street crowded with the festivities: DJ booths blasting music, children playing and families cheering as the pyrotechnics lit up the sky.

After the fireworks, Panetta and her roommates headed toward a nearby cafe. Just past the main crossroads, they heard gunfire that would signal an attack from a Tunisian man who drove a truck through the crowds, killing 84 and wounding 202 others. Suddenly, she was tangled in the kind of terrorist attack she had only watched before from afar.

“It was all very surreal,” Panetta said. “You see it on the news and your heart hurts for the country, but you never actually think it’s going to happen to you or someone you love. It feels like the moment when you wake up from a bad dream, and for a second, you’re not sure if it’s reality or not, except this is.”

Two of Panetta’s professors from Grand Valley State were taking advantage of the balmy weather Thursday and sitting outside on the Cours Saleya, eating dinner at one of the many restaurants serving hundreds on outdoor patios.

Dan Golembeski

At first, Dan Golembeski said he saw young people running into the passageway with “tense expressions” on their faces. Then, came older people. More and more came running from the west to the east through the courtyard.

Confused, Golembeski and his colleague, Carol Wilson, called to the runners, who looked worried. It was hard to grab their attention at first, but soon, a racer passed on the news.

“Someone told me they heard ‘des tirs, des coups de feu’ (shooting),” Golembeski said in an email Friday.

Golembeski said the 18 GVSU students studying in Nice were in separate groups watching the fireworks displays from the promenade, like Panetta, near the city’s center by Place Massena. Golembeski, associate professor of modern languages and literatures, said the students were accounted for early Friday.

Grand Valley’s study abroad program, from June 23 to July 31, focuses on French language and culture. Students stay with French host families and become immersed in the language, taking classes at a local institute.

Carol Wilson

When Panetta, a senior at Grand Valley, heard the gunshots, she said Friday she thought they were firecrackers.

No one knew what was going on, Panetta said, and in the chaos, she saw people casually walking or sitting down and eating dinner.

“All of the sudden a group of about six to eight people ran past us screaming,” Panetta said. “We were very confused, so we stepped out of the cafe, and all we could see were herds of people and police cars driving in the direction of the promenade.”

Once back at the lobby of her apartment with a Wi-Fi connection, Panetta learned about the attack through news reports.

Panetta kept in contact with several of her friends through the night. Some, she said, got caught up in a stampede, and others were trapped in a restaurant bathroom for nearly three hours.

“I felt so helpless. I didn’t know what to do to help my friends besides keep texting them and calling them to make sure they were in a safe area,” Panetta said.

Walking back to his apartment at 2 a.m., Golembeski noticed an unusually chilly wind and streets that appeared “eerily deserted,” with dinnerware still left on tables outside restaurants, except for the glasses that had fallen to the ground in the chaos. There was a high military presence, but Golembeski said he never felt unsafe.

Students can leave France early and complete course credit through the university, GVSU Chief International Officer Mark Schaub said.

The University of Michigan and Michigan State University said they did not have any groups of students in Nice on Thursday.

Police identified the driver of the truck, who also fired gunshots at officers, as Mohamed Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Nice resident and delivery driver. Sean Copeland, 51, and his 11-year-old son Brodie from Austin, Texas, were among those who died in the attack.

Panetta counts herself lucky.

“If I had stayed at the promenade for even five minutes longer, I would have been running for my life too, that’s how quickly it took place,” she said.


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