Brussels: From busy transport hubs to scenes of terror

By Anthony Faiola in Brussels

Messages and flower tributes have appeared around Brussels since the attacks. Photo / AP
Messages and flower tributes have appeared around Brussels since the attacks. Photo / AP

In this city often called "the capital of Europe", the main departures hall at Brussels Airport was a typical hive of activity on Tuesday morning (local time). A babble of languages filled the hall as passengers milled at check-in counters. There was a line for steaming java at Starbucks.

Didier Marchal, 42, a former Belgian commando happy to be home after attending a wedding in Canada, had just gone through customs shortly after 8am. Then he heard it.

"The sound was devastating," he recalled. "Have you ever heard dynamite go off?" he said of the first of two explosions at the airport - which Belgian authorities described as the work of suicide bombers. A third attacker whose bomb apparently failed to explode was still at large.

"This was concussive. You felt air moving toward you. It went everywhere. It took out the ceiling."

The moments after, he said, were reminiscent of his stints in war zones, and everything around him seemed to be occurring in slow motion.

"People who died weren't whole any more," he said. "They were in pieces. The concussions of the blast just tore them to shreds."

Panicked passengers, some wounded, rushed away from the blast, only to be stopped in their tracks as a second, larger bomb went off. In the grisly scene that unfolded, captured by social media, Sebastien Bellin, 37, a Brazilian Belgian basketball player, lay in agony on the floor, smeared in blood. Nails and other projectiles apparently packed into the bomb had ripped through clothing, leaving one bleeding man on the ground in a shredded suit.

A sign reads 'Why?' in English, French and Flemish behind candles and flowers near the Maelbeek metro station, in Brussels. Photo / AP
A sign reads 'Why?' in English, French and Flemish behind candles and flowers near the Maelbeek metro station, in Brussels. Photo / AP

A woman in a yellow jacket, identified as Nidhi Chaphekar, an air stewardess from Mumbai, sat shellshocked on a bank of airport chairs, one shoe missing and her feet bloodied. A single baby stroller stood in a cloud of dust. Panels fell from the ceiling. Smoke poured through shattered, twisted window frames.

"I saw people at the Starbucks with blood on their faces and I got really scared," said Tatyana Beloy, 31, a Belgian actress who was leaving on holiday. "I immediately ran outside. I had no clue what was happening."

This is what was happening: For the second time in 4 months, Europe was facing a multi-pronged terrorist attack that would paralyse one of its major cities. So soon after a cell loyal to Isis (Islamic State) had killed 130 people in Paris, the militant group claimed to unleash its operatives in a wave of terror targeting Brussels, the very heart of the European Union, the "Washington of Europe" - the administrative capital and home to thousands of office workers and officials charged with running the continent's bureaucracy.

About 75 minutes after the airport attack, assailants struck again.

Rushing to work, Charlotte Vandriesen, 26, a researcher for Belgian news outlet VRT, had just made it on board her metro train at the Maelbeek station before the doors closed. The train moved forward for a few minutes, she said, before she heard a large explosion and saw a cloud of dust through the windows.

Hundreds of people come together at the Place de la Bourse to mourn. Photo / AP
Hundreds of people come together at the Place de la Bourse to mourn. Photo / AP

"The car stopped, we were all afraid," she said. "For a couple of minutes it was like that, people screamed ... So many people were crying. We all knew immediately what was going on. We had heard the news that an hour earlier there was the attack at the airport. We knew it was linked to this."

Up ahead, only one stop away from the one used by the employees at the European Union and European Commission headquarters, an explosion had gone off on board the train that was pulling into the station. The blast killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 80.

Orry Van De Wauwer, who works for Belgium's centrist CD&V party, was inside a building across the street. He heard the blast and felt the structure shake before he saw dozens of injured people pour out of the station.

On a day when many Belgians were called on to be impromptu emergency responders, he jumped into co-ordination mode. Van De Wauwer and others helped the wounded into their office building, and went desk to desk among employees asking for those who knew first aid. The political worker collected water bottles and blankets, and tended to a wounded mother with a 5-year-old boy. "She kept telling him to keep his eyes closed, not to look around," Van De Wauwer said. "She did not want him to see what was happening around him."

So many people were crying. We all knew immediately what was going on. We had heard the news that an hour earlier there was the attack at the airport. We knew it was linked to this.
Charlotte Vandriesen

Back at the airport, planes that landed just after the explosions were forced to sit on the tarmac for hours. Passengers who had already disembarked found themselves trapped for hours, with no explanation from officials or airline representatives, they later said.

Hours later, many travellers from the airport were sent to a sports facility in the town of Zaventem, adjacent to the airport. At the sports hall, Marchal, the former commando, recalled the mayhem of the morning.

The military and police forces on hand, he said, hurried passengers out of the terminal and told them to wait.

"They were actually yelling at us," he said, adding: "The people who panicked the most were the police and the military. They were running around like chickens with their heads cut off for 15 minutes. You'd think they'd have planned for something like this, and if not, have a plan put in place."

By dusk, passengers had finally started to trickle out of the hall, mostly staffed by volunteers from the community, who brought bread, Easter chocolate and fresh coffee.

Miriam, a 63-year-old woman who declined to give her last name, emerged with her husband. They had both been in the terminal at the time of the explosions. Her husband was heading to Bermuda, and she was seeing him off. She had waited after he passed security to make sure he took off safely and was catching up on newspaper reading when the bombs went off.

"It was one of those hours where you realise your life can really take a turn," she said.

"We feel so lucky," she said, eyes welling with tears.

"Tomorrow is my birthday."

- Washington Post, Bloomberg

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