This blog is primarily my writing therapy for going through infertility, but it has also been my therapy for other things in my life and so I ummmed and ahhhhed about writing this post. But here we go…
I made a decision to buy a Starbucks coffee. I decided when I arrived at Brussels Airport early this morning to get myself a pick me up coffee to help me stay awake and deal with the jet lag. I left the arrivals lounge and headed upstairs to the departures. I decided as I was in a different country to try a different coffee. I ordered a skinny vanilla bean macchiato. I juggled the coffee with my two roller suitcases and managed to bag myself the last seat left in the corner. I got comfy and plugged in my phone to charge – I had killed it on the flight over playing games. I had just three sips of my coffee when there was a loud boom to the right of me, glass and debris flew everywhere, my coffee ended up on the floor. I ended up diving down on the floor because my battlefield instinct told me get low and cover my head. People got up and ran – I shouted at them to get down. About 40 seconds later there was an even bigger explosion. I could feel the heat from the fireball that ran across the ceiling above me. I could feel the shock wave pass over me. There was debris and bits of ceiling fluttering down around me, the old lady behind me was cowering behind her suitcase. I asked if she was OK. She was petrified, but she had someone with her. It’s challenging to consul someone when there is a language barrier.
I grabbed my lowly charged phone and my coat, trying to keep low. I dialed Chris – it was taking a long time for him to answer I thought I was about to get his answerphone….I am so glad I didn’t get his answerphone…but Chris answered, a little sleepy and dazed- it was 3 AM in the US. I told him “I don’t want to panic you- I’m OK, but there has been an explosion at the airport, I am OK.” I am not really sure exactly what happened after this. I don’t know what I said to Chris. I don’t know how long I was on the phone for, but I remember I kept saying how much I loved him. I can only imagine how terrified Chris was to receive a phone call like this in the middle of the night. You could almost think it was a nightmare. But it was real.
I remember lying low watching everyone around me run away. I wasn’t running, I was looking out for suspicious people, listening out for any gunshots. I was looking for injured people I could help. I guess all that pre-deployment training kicked in. I don’t think there is any right or wrong in this kind of situation, it’s what your gut instinct tells you to do.
There was a man who was walking calmly across the debris, through the thick smoke, I hid behind my suitcase. At the time he was suspicious to me, he was the only person not running. But in hindsight he was probably walking shell shocked. I was probably one of the last to leave the Starbucks – but I wanted to be sure which direction to get out without endangering myself any more. The first bomb was to my right, the second huge one was to my left. I was remarkably calm. I evaluated the situation, my first thought was to take just my passport…then I decided to take everything (except the coffee which I took a second look at…lying on the floor split everywhere, I don’t know how I managed to not get any on me.) I checked my surroundings again and decided to go right where the smaller explosion was. I hurried outside to the parking garage over the road. Picking up my suitcase as I ran. I’ve never left the confounds of Brussels airport because I’ve always transited onward by train to a different destination. I didn’t know where I was. I thought if I stay close I could help, but there was just chaos. It took a very long time for help to arrive – the first responders were the airport fire brigade. There were already some military at the airport patrolling because of already heightened security. They were walking around pretty dazed themselves. The ambulances arrived, the police arrived, they started to carry out the wounded – and dead – on stretchers. I think they all must have been under the rubble because I couldn’t immediately see anyone before I left. Then a soldier came running out shouting something I couldn’t understand, but I got the picture. There must have been another device, or an attacker laying in wait.
So we ran. We ran down a road which filters onto a main highway. But there was no designated rendez vous point…there was just the feeling of “everybody get the hell out of there”. So I did. I barely had any juice on my phone, I followed a trickle of people who looked like they knew where they were going. People were gathering at the petrol (gas) station, there was a little rest stop with toilets and vending machines. I went to the toilet and relieved myself…talk about a serious case of stress induced IBS!! I needed to get my phone working, I needed to find a plug. So I headed to the train station and figured if the trains were still running I’d get out of the city and head to my onward location outside of Brussels. There was confusion and chaos at the train station too. But I bought my ticket and got on a train that was heading into central Brussels. Once I made it onto the train, everything started to feel real. Little did I know that there had been another attack on the metro. We made it one station short of where my next train left from. That didn’t matter in the end because the authorities shut down the whole public transport system. My French skills were under some serious testing as various people made announcements that I tried to follow. It was very confusing.
One man noticed some debris in my hair and pulled it out for me. I suddenly realised I was a dusty mess! My jeans weren’t torn up, but they were beat up. My hair was grey, my glasses covered in a thin layer of dust, I had bits of ceiling tucked in all sorts of crevices of my clothing, I had black snot, I had a teary face, I had black soot all around my mouth. I looked a state! I got off the train and headed to the concourse, but the army and police were shutting it down and running at us with a long line of tape to get people out of the station as fast as possible. So I was on the rush again! I was exhausted and crying. I found my way out of the train station and had just enough juice on my phone to find the closest hotel. I dashed into the hotel and explained I needed a room because I had just been in an explosion and I was exhausted!!! The hotel staff were absolutely amazing.
In between all of this, I was messaging Chris and my work to tell them what was happening. And I was shaking. Shaking a lot. Chris reminded me to check myself for injuries. I realised once I got into the hotel that half my face was a bit sore, the back of my head had been banged, I had scraped up my knee and my back just below my ribs was starting to really hurt. I immediately stripped down as soon as I got into my room and got into the shower. I cried as I watched the dust run off me down the drain as the sirens continued to wail in the background.
The gravity of what just happened to me was beginning to sink in. My work have been amazing, they sent a crisis response team came out to the hotel to see me. I was also checked over by a doctor. The British Embassy called me to check for injuries and if I needed any consulate assistance. The general manager of the hotel came by to check on me. He called the police for me to check if I should leave any details as a witness. Apparently that wasn’t needed unless there was something in particular that would be critical. I couldn’t think of anything except the strangely calm wandering man, but I can’t describe him in detail so that wouldn’t be any help. My work are Currently working on how to get me home to the US sooner than Friday (my planned return – which by the way fills me with horror returning to Brussels airport – oh and the check in desk for American isn’t there anymore, it got blown up). Clearly I am not going to any meeting today or tomorrow. They are being awesome.
The lady from the crisis response team said one of the first steps to getting over a traumatic event is to tell my story as it happened. So I told my story to her and the rest of the team and we even had a little laugh about some things…and now I’m telling it all to you. So I don’t have to tell it a hundred times over. If someone asks me, I’ll point them to this blog.
In my honest opinion – the way I saw the events happen – I didn’t hear any gunshots, I didn’t hear anyone shout out in Arabic, I think the first device was diversionary (potentially a suitcase bomb) to divert a stream of panicking people towards the suicide bomber. I guess we will find out soon enough the chain of events. But all I know, is that I am glad I sat in the corner of Starbucks, I’m glad I wasn’t still queuing for my coffee 5 minutes before, I would have been so much more vulnerable. But yes, if I just got on that train out of the airport rather than get a coffee from Starbucks, I would probably be thinking how lucky I am. Now I am still thinking how lucky I am, but I feel the pain of seeing all those dead and severely injured people, I smell the smoke, I taste the debris, I feel the shock, I hear the explosions (which you know I already have experience of, but this time I didn’t have body amour or a weapon).
This was truly a horrific act of terrorism I have experienced. I have been through airports in other countries where the security happens before you get anywhere near the building. I do not want to see this happen to our freedom because then the terrorists win (oh I wrote about that already too – how depressing is that?).
By the way – I’m OK, I’m safe and I love you all (just in case I haven’t told you)!!! X