Shock, horror and the comfort of strangers in Nice

Nice (France) (AFP) - The living held their hands. They knew they were dead, but they could not bring themselves to let go.

Hours after unspeakable horror was visited on families who had gathered to watch the Bastille Day fireworks on the Nice seafront, the dead still lay scattered across the Promenade des Anglais.

Here and there people sat with them, sometimes alone, sometimes in little huddles of family and friends.

Some had only the comfort of strangers in the aftermath of Thursday evening's massacre.

One victim, a small child who like so many others had been allowed to stay up late to see the fireworks, lay dead on the tarmac with a doll close by.

"You would think you could do something to help by being there. But we were useless," said Tarubi Wahid Mosta, who tried to do what he could in the aftermath of the attack.

"All these families who have already spent a long time at their sides are likely -- given the horrible number of the dead -- to spend hours on the ground holding the cold hands of bodies dismembered by the truck" the actor wrote on his Facebook page.

- Baby lost in the panic -

One photograph he posted showed a women wearing a headscarf kneeling over a body.

"In the middle of all this is a Muslim family... one of whom did not escape this crazy lorry," he said. "Once again everyone has been touched, whether they were believers or not."

Outside a Nice hospital a grieving family later told reporters that their mother, a devout Muslim, had been the first of the lorry's 84 victims.

Long after dawn broke some of the victims were still lying on the promenade covered with blue and white sheets as the first of the morning joggers set out along the Bay of Angels.

Although large parts of the promenade were still cordoned off, people on Friday laid flowers, drawings and little notes in memory of the victims.

One man, Samir 22, sat on the pavement, holding a bunch of roses.

"I was there last night... I had to find some friends. I spent the evening looking for them and learned that one of them, Ahmed, had died."

At the Balthazar cafe which opens on to the promenade where the lorry came to a halt, waitress Alexandra, 23, told how staff helped terrified people by allowing them to hide under tables and in the toilets.

A banner put up by staff said: "I am Nice, I am France."

Like the carnival, the Bastille Day fireworks display is a huge family occasion, with children allowed to stay up well after their normal bedtimes to enjoy the spectacle.

Several children were among the dead, said President Francois Hollande, adding that as well as the 84 dead around 50 people were "in a critical condition between life and death."

Such was the violence with which the lorry tore through the crowds that a family was separated from their eight-month-old baby who had been in a pushchair.

He was found by a young woman who took him home with her and reunited him with his parents after they posted a picture of the boy on Facebook, a family friend told AFP.

- 'Frozen by shock' -

After a night of little sleep and many tears, the resort city was still struggling to come to terms with the horror.

"I saw a whole heap of dead people in front of me," said a retired man called Charles, who lives close to where the lorry first drove into the crowds.

"There will be no more parties, no more festivals. Yet if we are to face down the terrorists life has to continue," he added.

With fears that other gunmen could be on the loose, Myriam told AFP that she locked the children in a shoe cupboard and they remained in the room for three hours before deciding that it was safe to leave.

Yet the family were back on the promenade on Friday "so the children would not be terrified", Myriam added.

But even for those who grew up with war, the attack was shocking.

Lebanese MTV presenter Jimmy Ghazal said he found himself lying on the ground praying he would survive as the lorry driver fired shots into the crowd.

"Why did I come from a country where I could die to this place where, without divine intervention, I could have also been left as a corpse on the ground?" he wrote on Facebook.

Many of Nice's bars and cafes were closed Friday, as was its lifeguard station on the beach.

Lifeguard, Mehdi Zid, 21, told how he had managed to help "four of five people who were frozen by shock" the night before.

"One lone person is impossible to stop," he said.

Nice was not the only city in shock: across France spontaneous tributes were held, or minutes of silence observed, to mourn the victims.

In Paris the Eiffel Tower was lit up in the national flag colours late Friday.

On the Place de la Republique, the hub of emotional outpouring during last year's Charlie Hebdo and November 13 attacks, dozens gathered to place candles and flowers, some with messages.

"We pray for Nice," read one, another: "You will be in our hearts forever."