NICE, France — France was reminded Friday that terror threats will likely shadow the nation for years to come, as investigators picked through the chaos of the latest attack that left at least 84 people dead when a truck carved a mile-line path of horror through Bastille Day revelers on the French Riviera.
Counterterrorism authorities worked frantically to determine whether the attack had been perpetrated by a lone assailant, or whether it had connections and a support network that could be plotting further violence. The driver opened fire on the crowd before being shot dead by police, officials said.
Amid the high-alert atmosphere in Nice, the city’s airport was evacuated Friday. The reason for the clearance was not immediately clear,
There has been no claim of responsibility for Thursday’s bloodshed along the palm-lined Mediterranean. But the investigation appeared to narrow around a possible Tunisian-born suspect.
Police searched the Nice residence of a 31-year-old French citizen with Tunisian roots whose identity documents, mobile phone and bank card were found inside the refrigerated truck, French media reported. The Associated Press, citing police sources, described the man as having a record of petty crimes.
The truck struck the crowd after a fireworks display on the most important day in the French patriotic calendar on the Promenade des Anglais, a seaside walk in this southern French city. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced early Friday that in addition to the dead, another 18 people were in critical condition.
Among the dead with at least two Americans, said State Department spokesman John Kirby. More than two dozen German school children remained unaccounted for.
The truck used the attack was rented on Monday from the Via Location rental agency just outside of Nice, according to a woman at the agency who answered the phone on Friday but said she was not authorized to give her name. She said that the French Interior Ministry had asked the agency not to share further information with the investigation underway
The attack plunged the country back into mourning and crisis — the latest in a string of mass violence that struck repeatedly over the past 18 months and put France on the front lines of attacks linked to the Islamic State.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Friday that he believed that terrorism would plague France for the foreseeable future.
“The threat of terrorism, as we have now been saying for a long time, is weighing heavily on France, and it will continue to do so for a long time yet,” Valls said after an emergency meeting in Paris. “We are facing a war waged on us by terrorism.”
France had just exhaled after living for weeks with terrorism fears during the European soccer championships, which concluded on Sunday, and hours before the violence, President François Hollande had announced that he planned to allow a state of emergency to expire at the end of the month. On Friday, Valls announced it would be extended three months instead.
The victims included a vacationing father and son from Lakeway, Tex. The city’s children’s hospital said it had treated more than 50 minors in the attack, including some that still hung between “life and death,” said communications director Stephanie Simpson.
In the aftermath of the attack, the large white truck remained on the palm-lined boulevard, a macabre reminder of the carnage of the previous night, its screen riddled with bullets and its doors gaping open.
Witnesses described total chaos, with the crackle of gunfire and people screaming as they fled the scene. Graphic video and photographs flooding social media showed the bodies strewn for a mile along the boulevard where the truck plowed into the crowd. Revelers ran while sirens blared.
France has declared three days of mourning beginning Saturday and flags will fly at half-mast.
The attack was the latest in a string of horrific incidents that have unfolded across Europe in the past 18 months. In March, Islamic State attackers killed 32 people in suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and a metro station.
France was rocked by a devastating terrorist attack in November, when heavily armed suicide bombers killed 130 people in several places around Paris. The Islamic State asserted responsibility for that attack, the worst bloodshed on French soil since World War II.
In an address early Friday morning, Hollande condemned the “attack whose terrorist nature cannot be denied.” He announced that France would ramp up its military efforts in Syria and Iraq and that the country’s state of emergency, which had been imposed after Islamist militants killed 130 people in Paris last November, would be extended three months.
“All of France is under the threat of Islamic terrorism,” said Hollande, who returned to Paris to deal with the crisis after a private visit to Avignon, France.
“She [France] is strong. She will always be stronger, I assure you, than the fanatics that want to attack her today.”
The nearby city of Marseille, one of France’s largest, canceled its own fireworks display in response to the attack.
The reverberations spread across Europe. Germany said it would tighten border checks, Italy ordered police officials to reinforce security at all “sensitive targets” and Belgium added additional counterterror measures before its own national holiday celebrations next week.
In London, the French flag flew from atop 10 Downing Street and new prime minister Theresa May convened a meeting of the government’s emergency “Cobra” committee. May described the attack as “horrifying” and said Britain will stand “shoulder to shoulder” with France.
In Washington, President Obama released a statement Thursday night condemning the attack and said he had directed his team to get in touch with French officials to assist with the investigation.
“We stand in solidarity and partnership with France, our oldest ally, as they respond to and recover from this attack,” the statement said.
From Moscow, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov said the attack underscored the need to end the violence in Syria, the home of the Islamic State. The U.S. is proposing greater intelligence coordination with Russia on Syria.
“The problem,” a solemn Kerry told Lavrov, “is you and I and other foreign ministers are doing this now on almost a weekly basis. And nowhere is there a greater hotbed or incubator for these terrorists than in Syria.”
The Islamic State has previously called for attacks using vehicles, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist statements. It said supporters of the radical Islamist organization, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were sharing the news of the Nice attack and “celebrating the massacre.”
Pro-Islamic State forums posted old messages in which the terrorist group urged followers to carry out lone-wolf attacks against France.
Police said people in the vicinity should stay home and follow instructions from authorities. Police urged people not to spread rumors or broadcast shocking videos of the scene.
Within half an hour of initial reports of the incident, Facebook had activated its “safety check” feature for people in Nice. On Twitter, others used the hashtag #PortesOuvertesNice (“OpenDoorsNice”) to find and offer refuge to those who needed a place to stay.
The attack came on one of France’s most treasured holidays, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. In Paris, the occasion is marked by a military parade down the Champs-Elysees, the oldest such parade in Europe.
On Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, which skirts the Mediterranean coast where thousands of revelers had gathered to watch a fireworks display, music mixed with the sounds of laughter and the crackle of fireworks for most of the night.
Then gunshots were fired into the crowd.
“There were so many injured, and dead bodies,” said Fiona Le Goff, 27, a concierge at an apartment building facing the Promenade des Anglais. “The worst was a woman whose body was just stuck to the street.”
Later, she surveyed the area as forensic teams moved in. “There were people just covered with white cloths,” she said. “It was . . . horrible.”
Among the dead were two Americans: Sean Copeland, 50, and his 11-year-old son Brodie from Lakeway, Tex., just outside of Austin. The two were vacationing around Europe together on a trip that began in Pamplona, Spain, and through Barcelona.
They had stopped in Nice to celebrate Bastille Day.
“We are heartbroken and in shock over the loss of Brodie Copeland, an amazing son and brother who lit up our lives, and Sean Copeland, a wonderful husband and father,” the family said in a statement released by family friend Jess Davis which was obtained by the Austin-American Statesmen. “They are so loved . . . it was a terrible loss.”
James McAuley in Nice, Souad Mekhennet in Frankfurt, Brian Murphy and William Branigin in Washington, Carol Morello in Moscow, Griff Witte in London and Yanan Wang in Toronto contributed to this report.