Not just your ordinary morning at the airport
Almost two years ago, on the morning of 22 March 2016, three coordinated suicide bombings took place in the capital of Belgium: two at Brussels Airport, and another one in Maalbeek metro station. Thirty-two civilians and three terrorists were killed, and mare than 300 people were injured, of whom 62 critically. Later that day, another bomb was found during a search in the airport. The bombings were the deadliest act of terrorism in the history of Belgium, and the government declared three days of national mourning.
The 22nd of March 2016. I wake up early, it’s still dark outside. The street is quiet, and it looks like the beginning of just another day here in the south part of Antwerp. My friend Helena is waking up too, she spent the night at my place. Slowly we wake up, and it’s starting to seep through: today is the day we are leaving on our first holiday together! Both for her as for me it has been a bit of a rough year: a long cold Belgian winter, lots of work and little time to relax in between, and a recent relationship breakup. A few weeks ago we both took the decision to take a week off, and go look for some sun! Tel Aviv was a city we both never visited, and that we both would love to discover together. And besides, it was not that expensive, not that far, and the weather seemed to be just fine there at this time of year. After a quick shower and a fresh coffee, we take our bags and close the door behind us.
Just a few minutes walking from where I live, leaves a direct bus to the national Belgium airport: the Airport Express. It’s an easy and comfortable way of getting in Brussels Airport and I haven taken it many times before. The only disadvantage about the bus, is that it intends to be a bit late every time, due to the heavy traffic between Antwerp and Brussels. Theoretically we should be at the airport in only 35 minutes, and we could take the 07h10 bus as well, but since on a Tuesday morning like this traffic starts early, we decided before not to take any risks and to take the early bus. Later that day it would appear that a small decision like this would make a big difference…
Still not well awake, we arrive in the airport on time. We have plenty of time to do the check-in, get some breakfast and to get in our holiday mood! It’s not even that busy at the airport. In about a week the Easter-holiday starts off for the majority of the Belgians, and I guess that’s why it’s still fairly uncrowded here. In the main entrance hall, my friend and I have a look at the big screen that displays all the departing flights. Our flight seems to be on time!
We wander around a little in the big hall, I always liked the atmosphere of an airport when you’re leaving on holiday. I tell my friend that maybe I will have a last cigarette outside, before we start our check-in. In front of the airport, there is an awful lot of security and soldiers walking around. It’s only a few months after the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris, and ever since the state of alertness in Belgium has been raised ever since, resulting in lots of soldiers and security guards around public places. I remember we make a joke about it: what if someone would try to make an attempt to blow up the airport, what exactly could they do to prevent it? Little did we know that in a very short amount of time this would be the very thing that was going to happen…
We walk back inside, and we start queuing up at Check-in 2, where passengers for flight SN3289 from Brussels Airlines to Tel-Aviv are supposed to drop off their bags. We only have to wait a few minutes, and a very friendly young woman helps us with the actual check-in. We receive a little receipt from her, printed on a thermal-sensitive paper, displaying the exact time: 07h26.
Being rid off our luggage, we decide to get some breakfast, and my friends suggests to take a coffee and a bite just in front in the Starbucks booth. However, the airport recently had been going through some changes, the customs being one of them. That is why we decide to go through the customs first, not to defy fate, and to have breakfast in the other Starbucks, just past the customs at the beginning of terminal A, the terminal where our flight will also depart. However, customs go very smoothly, and only a few minutes later we are drinking our coffee.
It has been a quiet morning until now, and we feel very relaxed. It is still about half an hour until our gate opens, and we can start boarding. We laugh with the names that the Starbucks baristas have erroneously written down on our cups, something that is apparently often done, apparently deliberately and for marketing reasons. “Dolf” has been changed into “Dove”, freely translated something like “pigeon”, ironically the symbol for love and peace.
Disaster strikes: two suicide bombers, carrying explosives in large suitcases, take their places in the departure hall. The first explosion occurs at 07:58 in check-in row 11, just in front of the American Airlines desks, making the symbolic target the American flights. We are just behind the main hall, in the same building, and we see a huge stream of people running towards us, screaming a bomb just when off and we should run for our lives. It is striking how people respond very differently in a situation like this: some seem to be frightened and are crying, while others seem to be more “irritated”.
Although we do not know exactly what is going on in the big hall, and all we see is people running away from it, it would later seem that a second bomb went off at this time. The exact place: Check-in counter 2, where we had dropped off our suitcases half an hour before, targeting the Tel Aviv flight from Brussels Airlines, being the second symbolic target. At this moment a strange thing happens: one of the airport security guards, shouts that there is a third bomb, and that it will explode as well. People are panicking. We are trapped with thousands in the terminal, and there is no way to escape. We are instructed to leave all personal belongings on the floor, and to get outside, on the tarmac, in between the planes. How the security guard knew there was a third bomb, remains a mystery to me. It would only be later that day that a third, unexploded bomb was found at the airport. Later it was reported that this bomb was the heaviest of the three, and it would have been able to take down the complete building, making it very fortunate that it never went off.
We are outside, in between the grounded planes.It’s only until now that we are slowly starting to realize the seriousness of the situation, and we decide to let our friends and family know we are okay. Due to the overload of the network, my girlfriend Helena’s telephone does not work. I have a different carrier, and mine seems to work from time to time. However, my battery is close to empty, so we switch my SIM card into her phone. We post a Facebook status, stating that we are outside and safe, and that both of us can be reached at my personal number if necessary.
Immediately after this, the phone starts ringing like crazy. Not only friends and family are calling us, but also journalists somehow found out our contact details. We start looking for information ourselves on the usual news sites. Ultimately, we ourselves have no idea what to do, or where to go to. Gradually we hear lots of sirens approaching in the distance. Airport emergency services also seem to start running around at the airport. On the internet we see that the media are starting to post what has happened, and that the government of Belgium has raised to the highest state of alarm, and the national emergency state has been declared. We read on our phones that another attack has happened at 09h11, at a nearby metro station.
All public transport is being cancelled, boarders closed, and all emergency services around the country are being sent to Brussels. The airport is being locked down, and completely closed from the outside world. Helicopters are flying over the airport, sirens everywhere, and it looks and feels like a complete war zone. Everything feels very surrealistic and unreal, and our thoughts are with the people, just hundreds of meters away, in the middle of the most affected area. We see footage on social media, directly shot at the entrance of the airport, and everything looks very worrying and horrifying…
Being just outside the main hall, in the back of the building, we are the first ones being evacuated. It’s cold outside, and we are instructed to walk towards some buses and some other vehicles, bringing us to big warehouses. It looks like these are the warehouses where the planes are usually being repaired. Some big, half dissembled planes are being pulled outside as we arrive. There are machines and engine parts everywhere, and airport people are busy emptying the big spaces, and giving us blankets and something to drink. Slowly lots of people start to arrive, and airport officials state that there has officially been a terrorist attack, and that the airport is closed until further notice, and nobody is allowed to enter or leave the grounds and buildings, and all information is classified, making it unsure what will happen from now on. Everything is improvised, but everybody is doing the best they can!
Knowing that we are safe, and having something to drink, some blankets and stuff, we are starting to look for solutions to get out of here. A few hours have past, and it seems like eternity since we woke up early in the morning, leaving to the airport, with the intention to start our holiday. We have some time to charge our phones, every single socket is taken by people trying to reach home. After all, most of the people here are far away from home. I manage to talk with some friends, and to pass the time, I am constantly talking with reporters. I find myself live on an Australian radio news, talking with journalists from CNN and The New York Times, and many others.
It would take another few hours before we can leave from here. In little groups we are escorted away from the warehouses. Walking towards the zone where we can be picked up by the brother of my friend. When we leave the warehouse, we walk around the main building. We see hundreds, maybe thousands of police, special forces and soldiers. We are not allowed to take any pictures at all, and we have to continue walking. We see the front of the airport building, and glass and stuff lying around. We are the only civilians walking around here. We continue walking towards the parking area and the surrounding roads of the airport. Everything is empty. We walk over the actual highway, that is usually extremely busy with traffic, but it is now empty. It’s all so strange. In the distance we see fences and roadblocks, cutting the airport off from the rest of the world. Behind it, thousands and thousands of people trying to get a glimpse from what has been happening. Hundreds of satellite trucks and reporters, and a constant stream of new ambulances, armored police cars and army trucks arriving. We can finally go home now…
The days after
Also the days afterwards would turn out to be a bit weird. Belgium is a small en peaceful country, and the people were shocked by the unexpected events, and the gruesome nature of it. Many people had friends or relatives to a greater or lesser extent connected to the attacks. Internet, newspapers, television,… everything was 24/7 about what had happened. We would see videos on the news, displaying people that we actually remembered seeing in the airport. Like the young woman that check our bags at the counter.
In an audio message found one of the following days, recorded on March 21st and found on a laptop dumped in a street rubbish bin, one of the terrorists said that they would take action the next day “because a brother has given us information that there are American, Russian and Israeli flights tomorrow morning, and we’re going to try to hit it.”. The attacks were originally planned to have happened on the busy Easter-weekend, a week later, but were advanced due to police detectives investigating them and catching up on them.
Tel Aviv, at last
In between, me and my friends were trying to find out if we would still be able to go to Tel Aviv after all. We received a special number, that we had to call several times a day to see if our flight would somehow leave to Israel. But the airport in Brussels remained closed. In the end we would leave three days later from a small airport in Liege, and we had a short, but well deserved holiday after all. The last day of our holiday, me and my friend went to get a tattoo, to remind ourselves about the things that happened on that 22nd of March. My friend got a dove, representing peace and love, and referring to the Starbucks coffee just minutes before the attacks, and I got the “peace and love” written in Hebrew on my arm.
Writing this article, I am still keeping in mind the people, and their friends and relatives, that actually were killed, or seriously hurt or affected in any way by the events in Brussels airport and Maalbeek metro station, and by similar events all over the world. I would like to thank all my friends that made the time and the effort, and that supported and showed understanding. I would especially like to thank my friend Helena for just being there in all these moments, for having a great few days in Israel, and for being one of my best friends and loyal travel companion ever since! ♥ ♥ ♥