Charlotte resident Carter Schmitt was walking on the promenade in Nice, France, Thursday night when she was suddenly swept up in a wave of people running toward her, screaming. On instinct she started running with them, not knowing what was driving the mayhem.
As the world now knows, there was a truck plowing through the crowd just a few blocks behind.
She is one of several Charlotteans in Nice during the attack that killed 84 people and injured 202. The driver, a 31-year-old native of Tunisia, drove about 1.3 miles through the crowd, stopping only when shot by police officers.
Schmitt, a rising UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore and Myers Park High School graduate, said she noticed the emergency around 10:30 p.m. local time.
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“Initially we were running because we thought it was a shooter or bomb or something,” she said. “We pretty much ran as far as we could.” She said she was only a block or two away from where the truck plowed through, walking in that direction before turning around and running.
She was with Emma Macadam, a fellow UNC student whom she had been traveling with after her study abroad program in Spain ended. They didn’t know why they were running, she said, but they knew something was wrong.
They ended up turning a corner and running into a hotel, where masses of people began to gather seeking shelter. From there, she called her mother, Anne Schmitt.
“The way she sounded told me something was wrong,” Anne said. Her daughter’s voice was shaky as she tried to explain the chaos around her. She told her mother that she wasn’t sure what was happening, and because of the celebration, it was difficult for her to differentiate gunshots from fireworks.
Schmitt said they ended up in the hotel’s courtyard and stayed put for about an hour. The tension and panic in the hotel was evident, she said.
“Everyone was so on edge (that) anytime one person would move, all of a sudden everyone would move,” she said. “There were a bunch of kids with us that were crying, scared. Nobody knew what was happening; the hotel staff didn’t know either.”
Schmitt said she heard broken pieces of both true and false stories swirl around her. “Some people said terrorists, some said a bomb, some said a shooter,” she said.
“She wanted me to get on the internet to see what was going on,” Anne said. “She told me that someone was driving a truck (through the crowd), but at this point we didn’t know why – was it a drunk driver?”
After about an hour, Schmitt said they tried to walk back to where they were staying, only to be rerouted by officers to another hotel. She said it was after 12:30 a.m. when they were finally able to leave.
In the chaos, Schmitt said her immediate reaction was ‘Oh, another shooting.’
“The whole time I had been traveling that had been in the back of my mind,” she said. “We live in a time now where something like that is a legitimate concern.” She said the fact that this was her first thought says a lot about today’s world.
“Our generation has been kind of desensitized,” she said. “But it’s not something I thought I would ever have to deal with.”
She said she also thought about how, for some unknown reason, she was one of the lucky ones.
“We were supposed to have left earlier,” she said. If they had, they would have been even closer to the truck when it drove through.
Now, Schmitt and Macadam have crossed safely into Italy. They were planning on leaving Nice Friday regardless, but they left earlier in the day than they would have otherwise, she said.
In addition to Schmitt and Macadam, there is also an entrepreneurship group in Nice from Davidson College. Jay Pfeifer, director of media relations, confirmed the participants – five students and one staff member – are all unharmed and accounted for. He said they plan to stay in Nice until next Friday, when their program is scheduled to end.
Schmitt’s mother said she unfortunately isn’t a stranger to fearing for her family in the midst of an attack. Just last month, she was in Orlando, Fla., at Disney World with her other daughter when a gunman committed the deadliest attack in the United States since 9/11 at an Orlando gay nightclub.
“We were kind of like ‘How can we be having fun on this day, when all this is happening?’ ” she said. “Later it came out that the gunman had scoped out Disney. Here it is now, and my daughter is in Nice when this happens. Are we safe anywhere? Is this the world we live in now?”
But despite the attacks and darkness in the world, Anne said goodness will always win. She referenced Stephen Colbert’s message after the Orlando shooting, emphasizing that reacting to attacks with despair is nothing but a victory for the attackers.
“They win if you let it control you,” she said. “You can’t let it rule your life, you just have to be aware, alert, and spread joy and love in a tangible way. Do something. Help people.”
Cole: 704-358-5357; @kianamcole