ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In the south of France, a celebration turned into horror tonight. It was in the city of Nice at the end of a fireworks show for Bastille Day when a massive truck accelerated into a crowd of people who'd gathered on the boardwalk. The truck left at least 70 bodies in its wake. Witnesses report seeing crushed strollers.
The mayor says the truck was full of explosives. And at the end of the attack, the windshield was full of bullet holes. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joins us now from Paris. Hi, Eleanor.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What is the latest you can tell us about what we've learned tonight?
BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, the latest is that death toll keeps going up. It was 60, and now the former mayor is saying it's 75 and many wounded. And as you said, a truck - and this is one of these, like, Mack Trucks that you see on the highway - plowed into a crowd of people who were out celebrating. It's Bastille Day. It's the national holiday, like July 4 - not thinking of danger at all, plowed into them. And other witnesses spoke of restaurants putting, you know, tablecloths over all the bodies, so it's just horrible.
SHAPIRO: Do we know anything about who the driver may have been?
BEARDSLEY: We know that he was shot. And there might have been a second person in the truck. We're not sure yet. We don't know who he is. But everyone has on their mind terrorism. The French prosecutor in charge of terrorism has opened the case, is in charge of the case. And the former mayor of Nice says the truck was full of explosives and hand grenades. But everyone has this sense of dread because this is France's July 4, and this is a big day. And so it seems like a symbolic attack.
SHAPIRO: And we heard from witnesses who are in Nice tonight that there was already a lot of security, that people were on edge. They may have had second thoughts about gathering in large crowds.
BEARDSLEY: Well, that's funny because I live in Paris, and that's the site of the two attacks last year. And I have to say this, Ari, we've had a lot of security for a long time. But we just had the European championship soccer tournament. It lasted one month. Two million people came to the country. There were 50 games around the country in packed stadiums, in fan zones. The fan zone under the Eiffel Tower held 100,000 people. There were no incidents. The thing - the whole of event was perfect.
People felt confident. People felt good, I can tell you. And tonight, people came out to watch fireworks. And the thought of terrorism was sort of in the back of everyone's mind because they thought, well, they would have attacked. You know, we had a whole month of festivities all around the country. So no, I feel like people were not wary. Of course, you always know that it's - you know, it happened; it could happen again. But people were feeling free and easy, and this plunges us right back to where we were on November 13 last year.
SHAPIRO: What have we heard tonight from France's political leaders? I know French President Francois Hollande came back from Avignon to meet with his team in Paris. Has he made a public statement?
BEARDSLEY: Not yet. He is speaking tomorrow. He is in a crisis meeting right now. He came back. We're supposed to hear from him 9 a.m. French time tomorrow. He just spoke today at the Bastille Day parade, the military parade. And he said, we will not extend the state of emergency. You know, we don't - it's against, like, a republic in the laws, and, you know, we will not go ahead with that. You know, people - the French people were feeling better, and, you know, this has plunged us back where the country was eight months ago.
SHAPIRO: That statement that he was not going to extend the state of emergency - remind people what the state of emergency was and what it said about the French kind of sense of self after the terrorist attacks of the last couple years.
BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, the state of emergency was put in place after - after the attacks in November 13. And those were the second attacks last year. And that meant that, you know, there were 10,000 military on the streets. There were police everywhere. And it meant the police could raid houses and do searches and seizures any time. And, you know, it sort of - it's not a Democratic thing, you know? It can't go on forever in a - Hollande said today, in a country that has laws and values, you cannot have a constant state of emergency. And so he was ending it. But now, I don't know if it will end anymore. Maybe they will have to extend it. Everything is up in the air now. We don't know what's going on, but everyone fears this is another terrorist attack and a new kind. You know, you're preparing for explosives. You're searching people in these fan zones. The security was phenomenal the last month with this soccer tournament and - you know, for explosives, for guns, for weapons, but no one's thinking of a truck hurtling into a crowd.
SHAPIRO: Eleanor, stay on the line with us, if you would. I want to bring in our counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. And Dina, for most of the evening, we were reluctant to call this a terrorist attack, or at least we didn't want to prematurely call this a terrorist attack. Then President Obama released a statement saying, what appears to be a terrorist attack. The former mayor of Nice said that the truck was packed with explosives. At this point, there appears to be little doubt.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Yes. They - well, they're certainly leaning that way. I wanted to build on something that Eleanor said. I had heard in a meeting with security officials a couple of months ago that they felt that the Euro soccer matches were so highly secure, they didn't expect that there would be an attack during those matches. They actually expected it to come after that. They didn't know anything definitive. But when I was in this meeting with these security officials - and French authorities were really girding for something like this, a soft target attack meant to disrupt the summer holidays.
SHAPIRO: As you talk to security officials, how does one prevent an attack like this that requires little more than a truck and a crowd?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, exactly, little more than a truck and a crowd and not even that much planning. I think there's an important thing to note here that ISIS confirmed the death of Omar Shishani just this week. He's known as Omar the Chechen, and he was their popular minister of war. And you have to wonder why they confirmed it only now because he was actually killed in March by U.S. airstrikes. And now the Twittersphere is full of ISIS followers who are celebrating this attack. That doesn't mean ISIS did it, but they're celebrating this attack. And they are saying that this is revenge and retribution for the killing of Omar the Chechen.
SHAPIRO: I just want to let you know that on Twitter, the deputy mayor of Nice has said, that the death toll has climbed to at least 77 people. Dina, you have been reporting over the last few high-profile terrorist attacks we've seen on the difference between an attack that might be organized by ISIS and an attack that might be inspired by ISIS, an attack that might be carried out by an ISIS sympathizer. Ultimately, do these distinctions matter?
TEMPLE-RASTON: I actually do think they do because the problem with giving ISIS credit for attacks too quickly is that it makes the group much more powerful and seeming like it's much more in control than it is. I mean, an interesting little detail that we've gotten so far in this investigation is we've heard that explosives and hand grenades were in the truck. That suggests that this was supposed to be some other kind of attack, not just a big Mack Truck running through crowds, which clearly is a deadly, deadly thing to do. But why would you have explosives and hand grenades in the truck? That suggests that there had to have been maybe a plan in which other people were going to be involved and use those things.
SHAPIRO: I also want to bring Eleanor back in here. And Eleanor, can you tell us a little bit more about Nice, where this took place? Really kind of a summer vacation, idyllic beach spot.
BEARDSLEY: Oh, Ari, it's a total idyll. It's a beautiful town on the Mediterranean Sea, with palm trees and lovely hotels. And the Promenade des Anglais, where this happened, is this gorgeous road and boardwalk that runs along the sea. And, you know, there are cafes and - with chaise lounge chairs on the beach and palm trees. And it's a wonderful place where - to stroll at night and to look out at the Mediterranean. And this is where people were watching fireworks, gathered. And Nice is not a city like Paris that empties out in the summer. People go on vacation to Nice, so it was packed.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley and also Dina Temple-Raston. And we'll have more as this story unfolds.
BEARDSLEY: My pleasure, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.