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'Scariest Moment of My Life': Witnesses Relate Horror of Deadly French Crash

Eyewitnesses told NBC News the truck that ran into a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France, appeared to have done so in a well-planned attack.
Rescue workers help an injured woman into an ambulance early Friday after a truck drove into a crowd in the French Riviera town of Nice.Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images

The truck that ran into a Bastille Day celebration Thursday night in Nice, France, killing dozens, appeared to have done so in a well-planned, intentional attack, witnesses and security experts told NBC News.

Photos: Scenes of Fear After Truck Slams Into Crowd in France

Nader El Shafei, 42, was vacationing from Cairo, in the lobby of the Hotel Mercure on the Promenade des Anglais, watching holiday fireworks when he saw the truck.

"He smashed into a lot of people," El Shafei told NBC News. "I was waving to the driver, 'Stop' there's a girl under the truck.'"

He said he still thought it might have been an accident at that point, but then realized it was likely a deliberate attack. "He was not concentrating on what was going on. He was looking back and forth," said El Shafei.

Related: 'Pathway of Bodies': San Diego Woman Describes Watching Horror Unfold in Nice Attack

"I saw him pick up a phone, I thought, and at this point I still think it's an accident and then I see he pulls out a gun. It looked like a handgun, a Glock. He pulled it out and I understood something was wrong...and then I see the police shooting him."

As everyone started to flee, he remained still.

"I couldn't run," he said. "I was just frozen."

NBC News terrorism security analyst Malcolm Nance, executive director of the Terror Asymmetrics Project, a nonprofit research institute, said the incident bore all the hallmarks of a "major terror attack."

Vehicular traffic is barred from the promenade on holidays, meaning the driver of the truck would have had to negotiate several roadblocks to reach the area, said Nance, a former veteran federal counterterrorism officer for the Department of Homeland Security.

Nance said the driver used a strategy often used by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and by attackers in Israel — zigzagging through the crowd and then speeding up when authorities tried to pull him over.

Nance stressed that the use of methods associated with al Qaeda didn't necessarily mean the driver was affiliated with the terrorist group.

But "clearly, they wanted a very high body count," he said. "They wanted it done in a spectacular fashion."

Police officers and a soldier at the scene of an incident where a truck drove on to the sidewalk into pedestrians Thursday night in the French resort city of Nice.Ciaran Fahey / AP

Eyewitnesses uniformly agreed.

"It doesn't look like this is some horrible accident," said Bob Franken, an NBC News producer at the scene. Franken said he "personally saw over a dozen [people] mowed down."

Dr. Kevin Motamedi of Denver, a physician who is in Nice as part of a six-week tour of Europe, told NBC News that the incident "certainly was no accident."

Related: New York City Woman Caught in Aftermath of Nice, France Attack

The incident started as thousands of people were leaving the beach about 20 minutes after a large fireworks display to celebrate France's national holiday, Motamedi said.

"We were actually talking about how that basically would have been the perfect setup for a terrorist attack, because you had wild explosions, and it's hard to differentiate gunfire from fireworks from a bomb going off," he said.

People cross the street with their hands on their heads early Friday as a soldier secures the scene where a truck drove into throngs of pedestrians along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France.Jean-Pierre Amet / Reuters

"For something like this to have happened, especially right after the fireworks, clearly it was a very well-coordinated, well-timed event, because it certainly was no accident," Motamedi said, adding: "It was the scariest moment of my life, easily."

A woman identifying herself as Coralie told France 24 News that a "very, very big truck" began running people over.

"I pushed my mother into a building along with about 50 other people. When I reached the door, shots were fired," she told the station.

"We left the kids' strollers on the ground floor, carried the kids in our arms and we waited," she said. "We thought it's not possible, but people were yelling 'It's a terrorist attack!' when the truck started running people over.

"Then more shots were fired."

Sophie Sanderlands, an Australian woman who was on vacation in Nice, told Australia's Seven Network that the scene went from a "really happy mood" to absolute chaos.

"We were down on the beach front enjoyoing the fireworks that they put on for the celebration nothing seemed out of place five or six minutes after it finished, started walking down," she told the network. " People everywhere, really happy mood, nothing was out of place, and then all of a sudden, thousands of people just started running towards us, screaming, crying, absolutely out of control."

She said "there were strollers on the ground, people crammed into restaurants, people trying to into restaurants but they were shutting them out because there was no room left, pulling curtains across windows."

Linda Hervieux reported from Nice, France

Hasani Gittens contributed.