Witnesses to the deadly attack on Barcelona's Las Ramblas say the popular tourist area quickly became a scene of fear and chaos.

John Ward had just returned home from a morning stroll on Las Ramblas when a van plowed into a group of pedestrians in front of his apartment, killing at least 13 people and injuring more than 100.

"I went out this morning. I met a friend for lunch, came back, and was back I suppose an hour and then all hell let loose," John Ward, a British military veteran who has lived in Barcelona for more than a decade, told As It Happens.

"So I was very lucky to be inside, because 20 metres from my front door, it could have been me out there."

From his balcony, Ward said he saw swarms of police officers surrounding a damaged van, empty with both doors open, which had crashed into a news kiosk and a flower store before coming to a halt on top of a local street mural.

'It's not easy to see that'

He said he could see at least four bodies, and watched as a police officer lifted a blanket over the head of a deceased victim.

Ambulances were coming and going, he said, as paramedics treated injured people at the scene.

"I saw a couple of children being carried to an ambulance as well," he said. "It's not easy to see that — innocent kids."

Ward said it was difficult to process what happened.

"When I first looked out and I saw what was unfolding, I thought, 'Oh, they've got a very elaborate exercise going on here to test the emergency services.' And then it dawned on me that it wasn't an exercise. It was for real."

'Mass panic'

Two Nova Scotia sisters who were in the midst of the attack said it was a scene of fear and chaos.

"We experienced the type of mass panic you only see in the movies. We were shopping in the direct area of today's attack and were rushed out of a store onto the sidewalk filled with people running, screaming and crying," Alexis Crossley told CBC News via social media.

Crossley and her sister Haley have been travelling in Europe for the last two weeks. Alexis's fiancé, Matt Miller, works for the University of Arizona and was in Barcelona with the basketball team.

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Witnesses to a van attack on Las Ramblas in Barcelona describe crowds of people running and screaming. (Giannis Papanikos/Associated Press)

The Crossleys asked people what was happening, but couldn't understand the rapid Spanish answers.

"Everyone was rushing in the direction of our hotel, so we joined in and quickly returned to the hotel," said Alexis.

Since then, they've stayed in the hotel to watch the news and tell family they are safe.

'People are more afraid now'

Standing outside a police barricade, Barcelona resident Mert Cam described the aftermath for CBC News.

"The people were so shocked and they were frightened," he said. "I think that was the purpose of this attack — to frighten people."

Cam said people ran into the many shops on Las Ramblas while others lay on the ground.

Barcelona van attack: City resident describes aftermath6:55

Police aren't giving people any information so those in the area, including those unable to get into their homes, are relying on hearsay, he said.  

"There are many rumours and the rumours make it actually worse. And people are more afraid now," Cam said.

The attack happened at the most crowded time on Las Ramblas, Cam said, adding it's likely most of the victims were tourists.  

Hockey Night in Canada's David Amber is vacationing in Barcelona with his family. He'd just returned to his hotel when the attack happened. He told CBC News that he could see a body draped in a tarp from his hotel window.

"At one point we counted 16 different ambulances in about a 15-minute span. So it is all hands on deck here to take care of the situation," Amber said. 

'It was brutal'

A taxi driver who witnessed Thursday's attack, Oscar Cano, said a white van suddenly jumped the curb and sped down the central pedestrian area at high speed for about 500 metres, veering from side to side as it targeted people.

"I heard a lot of people screaming and then I saw the van going down the boulevard," another witness, Miguel Angel Rizo, told The Associated Press. "You could see all the bodies lying through Las Ramblas. It was brutal. A very tough image to see."

Jordi Laparra, a 55-year-old physical education teacher and Barcelona resident, said the attacker targeted as many people as he could.

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At the time of the attack, Las Ramblas was crowded with tourists. One witness told CBC News most of the victims were tourists. (Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images)

"At first I thought it was an accident, as the van crashed into 10 people or so and seemed to get stuck. But then he manoeuvred left and accelerated full speed down the Ramblas, and I realized it was a terrorist attack. He zigzagged from side to side into the kiosks, pinning as many people as he could, so they had no escape," Laparra said.

Canadian Jenna Watson was at her apartment a few blocks away when the attack happened. She checked Twitter for information while hearing the sirens outside.

"It's a scary time and I think I feel like anyone would feel (not just a Canadian) in this situation: Scared. Angry that people would do this. Confused by conflicting media reports," Watson told CBC News in a text message.

"This is a tragedy, but we can't let terrorists stop us from walking in our city or going out. If we do, then they have accomplished their goal." 

With files from The Associated Press