The big white truck without markings looked out of place so late at night on Nice's beachfront boulevard whose bright lights glittered along the bay like a string of stars.

Was the driver lost? Or maybe drunk from too many glasses of Bastille Day cheer?

Suddenly, he slammed his foot on the gas, and screams pierced what moments earlier had been an evening of celebration and fireworks for France's national day.

The rented 19-ton truck zigzagged for 2 kilometers (1¼ miles) through the happy holiday crowds like a snow plow, leaving a gruesome trail of crushed and mangled bodies. The 84 dead included French and foreigners, children and adults.

Just when Egyptian tourist Nader El Shafei looked like he would become the next to fall under its large wheels, the truck stopped. The attacker, a 31-year-old Tunisian who lived in Nice and drove for living, was killed by police gunfire.

El Shafei had gone to the promenade because he had been advised by friends to savor the pleasures of the French Riviera.

"I wanted to see the paradise," he said. "But I saw something else."

He caught the scene on video — the crackle of gunshots, officers warily approaching the cab with its windshield pockmarked with holes. El Shafei says he saw the driver, Mohamed Bouhlel, fire back through a window.

French authorities are investigating what they called a terrorist attack — France's third with mass casualties in 18 months and even more indiscriminate than the others.

The dead in Nice included at least 10 children and adolescents. They had come to marvel at the fireworks, "to feel joy, to share in happiness and be dazzled," said President Francois Hollande.

"And they were struck, struck to death, to satisfy the cruelty of an individual and perhaps of a group," he said after visiting a hospital that treated victims.

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Leicester reported from Paris.