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Watching fireworks with friends, then running for your life in Nice, France

Watching fireworks with friends, then running for your life in Nice, France
Tributes are left on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, the night after an attack that killed and wounded dozens. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

The Canadian couple I'd just met screamed a warning: "Sarah, run!"

People scattered all around, fanning in different directions down the maze of medieval streets in this town I've called home for the last year. Everyone's eyes, I remember, looked the same: wide open and full of fear.

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I had been among those watching fireworks on Bastille Day, a French national holiday, less than a hundred yards from the scene of what I later learned was France's latest terrorist attack.

I spent Thursday night and early Friday morning with dozens of fellow Couch Surfers -- named for a travel website that helps people make friends and find a spare sofa to crash on in foreign countries. A group of us -- visitors, hosts and friends -- often gather to hang out.

This week we watched the fireworks and then headed to a bar nearby in Cours Aleya, the main tourist strip in the Old Town of Nice.

As we settled into our seats, the wind whistled outside. Gray clouds had hung over Nice all afternoon.

At first, when it began, I noticed frantic running.

A wall of people -- at first a few and then dozens and then more --  came toward us on Promenade des Anglais, the street parallel to us. Some sprinted, others walked, still unsure of what had happened.

I tried to calm the group.

"Don't worry," I said, "it's probably just heavy-handed crowd dispersal tactics."

"I don't know …" someone replied.

By then, the sprinting crowd had turned to hundreds. No one said much of anything. I just remember people's eyes.

One of my new Canadian friends shouted: "It's happening -- something's happened!"

Someone ran by, mumbling about a gun, and the 30 or so of us Couch Surfers sprinted for the street, stopping to catch our breath on the corner. The group had splintered off, zigzagging the chaotic streets.

I lost track of the Canadian couple, who I last saw running for high ground on a hill, and took shelter inside a cafe with a friend, who'd just gotten a phone call from her mother in Egypt. Her mother had just seen news of the attack on TV.

As we tried to guess what might've happened, a few people looked as if they might burst into tears. But mostly, we sat stunned.

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The city's busiest streets, Cours Saleya and Rue de la Prefecture, quickly emptied, leaving behind a tableau of quick escape. Unfinished plates of food, half-finished glasses of wine.

Shouts of fear echoed through the streets, cutting the silence, as did the sound of metal shutters slamming closed as business boarded up in the darkness.

My friends' phones' buzzed with tips and rumors -- there was, perhaps, a gunman on the loose. Phone networks jammed, but we got information in confusing tidbits. We heard, at the time, that 20 people had died. Some people heard it was car bomb, others a shooting. And, there was also something about a truck.

We knew we had to get off the street, so we rushed into the first place we found open, a jazz club called Shapko.

Inside, a live band, oblivious to the chaos outside, played a bluesy rendition of "No Woman, No Cry" by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

After about 20 minutes, the music cut off. We waited in near silence for an all-clear.

Before long, when we learned that a truck had plowed through the crowd, mowing down bystanders, the crowd grew more anxious.

Some asked to leave, others took long drags from cigarettes, easily ignoring the indoor smoking ban. The smell -- one I usually hate -- felt different. It felt nostalgic, a reminder of long-ago days.

We finally left around 2 a.m. and a group -- many scared to travel across the city -- gathered at my apartment, a two-minute walk from the club.

Glued to our phones, eager for more details, only soft chatter filled the room. We hugged each other and sometimes cried.

I cracked open the only food in my apartment: a bottle of rosé and a bag of chocolate marshmallow bears.

I poured the rosé into glasses, only a few swigs for each person.

"Any wine is good right now," one French friend said.

We rested our heads on each other's shoulders and drifted in and out of sleep.

Eventually, around 3:30 a.m., when it became clear no more attacks had been reported, guests began to trickle out of my building. We kissed each other on both cheeks -- the traditional bisou style for saying goodbye -- and they promised to text me as soon as they got home to confirm they were safe.

As the details trickled in -- a truck had bulldozed through the seaside promenade, killing at least 84 people -- messages from friends all over the world lit up my phone.

"I'm so sick of hearing these stories," a friend in Canada wrote. "Be safe!"

Another, more pleading, came from a local friend: "I have no reception...r u ok??? Something happened and everybody was running. "Please text me you are OK."

Outside, large groups of armed paramilitary police scoured the streets.

On Friday morning, as street cleaners made their rounds, I went for a walk. In this tourist city, strangers don't usually warrant a second glance, but this day, everyone seemed to hold eye contact for a beat or two longer than usual, taking in every single person walking past.

Harvey is a special correspondent.

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