A University of Kentucky professor who was just blocks away from the terrorist attack in Barcelona on Thursday says there’s “a new sense of uneasiness” in the city.
Matthew Wilson, an associate professor of geography at UK since 2011, has been staying in an apartment just two or three blocks from the Las Ramblas promenade, where an Islamic extremist drove a van into a crowd on Thursday. Fourteen people were killed and more than 120 were wounded.
At about 4:50 p.m. on Thursday, Wilson said he went out for a walk to get an early dinner, and as he sat down to eat, he noticed that “things seemed a little bit off.”
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“Cars were driving pretty fast,” he said. But “it’s not unusual in the gothic quarter to see weird things.”
On his walk back, the commotion became more noticeable.
Since he doesn’t have a data plan on his phone, he said it was not until he reached the apartment that he began receiving notifications about the attack.
Because he does not speak Catalan, the language of the region, Wilson said he and an undergraduate friend from UK who has since flown back home struggled to translate the messages.
Las Ramblas still feels a bit like a funeral procession.
University of Kentucky professor Matthew Wilson
He said authorities “encouraged those of us living in this neighborhood to lock our doors” while they searched for those responsible. They were discouraged from using their phones but were receiving continual texts and messages from concerned friends.
From the apartment building’s rooftop terrace, Wilson said he could see the activity below.
“There were police vehicles … people running,” he said. “… It was intense. I’ve never been in a situation like this.”
For a while, Wilson said he worried that he might be safer if he left the apartment.
“There was discussion about a bomb,” he said. “I didn’t know if I would be safe in this building.”
At about midnight, Wilson said he got word that it was OK to go out.
Outside, “it was incredibly silent,” he said.
Restaurants, bars and clubs that normally would have been bustling with activity were closed, and public plazas were cordoned off.
On Friday, Wilson attended the noontime vigil at Plaça de Catalunya where tens of thousands of locals and tourists, along with Spain’s King Felipe VI, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and other political leaders, gathered.
“You could hear the wings” of pigeons flying overhead during a moment of silence for the victims of the attack, he said. Then came the roar of the crowd chanting “I’m not afraid” in Catalan.
“It was a remarkable moment of solidarity,” he said.
This is Wilson’s fourth summer in Barcelona.
“It’s kind of a nice holiday town to get away to do some writing,” he said.
He said he began a sabbatical from his position at UK, where he teaches classes in digital mapping, earlier this summer. He flew to London in late July to do some research at the British Library, then went on to Barcelona.
Wilson said he plans to return to London later this month, then head back to Lexington Sept. 6 before continuing his research at other sites.
In the street where the attack occurred, “there’s a lot of quiet,” Wilson said. “Las Ramblas still feels a bit like a funeral procession.”
There’s “a new sense of uneasiness,” he said. “There’s just not a mindset here to expect that kind of attack.”
But even before Thursday, Wilson said he had noticed more police presence and armed guards in public places. He said he noticed it in London, too, where similar attacks were carried out on London Bridge and Westminster Bridge earlier this year.
“Europe is definitely on notice about this,” he said.