October 28, 2016

Brussels Survivors Say Blasts Instantly Evoked Paris Attacks

One of the injured staff member of Jet airways (right) at Brussels airport.

Simon O’Connor, a European Commission official, had parked his car and was about to walk toward the departure terminal, en route to Rome for work. Salome Corbo, an actress from Montreal, was at the Air Canada counter, about to check her luggage. Elouan Preaud and his wife, Angelina Centeno, were having breakfast, waiting to board an American Airlines flight to her native Colombia.

Then came the blasts.

The first one tore through the check-in area at Brussels Airport just before 8 a.m. Brussels time (3 a.m. Eastern time) on Thursday. Another followed, seconds later, near a Starbucks.

Preaud and his wife, who is pregnant, hit the ground as people screamed, “Get down, get down!” After the second explosion, he looked up to see a giant fan – part of an air-conditioning unit – that had landed near them. They had been eating at a Delifrance, talking about Salah Abdeslam, the terrorism suspect who was arrested in Brussels on Friday after a four-month global manhunt.

“In 10 seconds, everything changed,” Preaud said. “It was an apocalypse. There was blood everywhere.”

Corbo, like other witnesses, said the second blast was stronger than the first.

“I felt myself pushed forward as if by a force of air,” she said in a phone interview. “People dove to the ground. Parts of the ceiling fell in. There were some injured people lying on the ground. I saw a foot that had been blown off.”

O’Connor, the European Commission official, described hearing “two deeply rumbling crashes” as he approached the airport terminal from the parking lot.

“I saw the glass side of the terminal blown out, a lot of agitated people streaming out,” he said in a phone interview. “There were people with blood on their faces, people with injuries on the ground outside the terminal building. It was the kind of stuff you hope to never see.”

And it did not stop there.

Nearly 7 miles away, in the heart of Brussels – as paramedics, police officers and other emergency workers were still evacuating hundreds of passengers at the airport and taking scores of injured people away for treatment – a bomb went off on a subway train as it departed the crowded Maelbeek station. It was 9:11 a.m., just after the height of the morning rush.

“The train was coming into Maelbeek station,” said Brian Carroll, 31, a communications consultant from Washington, who was on the train heading to a conference in downtown Brussels. “There was suddenly a loud explosion. There was smoke everywhere. Everyone dropped to the ground. People were screaming and crying. I was on the ground.

“My immediate reaction was, ‘We are getting attacked by terrorists,'” he continued. “For all I knew, there was a gunman going from car to car and shooting people.”

After a couple of minutes, Carroll pried open a door of the subway car. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,'” he recalled. “I headed toward an exit. There was smoke and soot everywhere. There was glass everywhere. It was like running through a cloud of dust.”

He eventually joined a friend near the Berlaymont, the headquarters of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union. “I’m a bit shaken up, but I’m OK,” he said.

Both the airport terminal and the subway station became scenes of carnage. Roughly 10 people were killed at the airport and 20 at the subway station, while 200 others were injured, officials said Tuesday evening, cautioning that the death toll could rise.

Among the dozen or so witnesses interviewed on Tuesday, a theme recurred with striking consistency. None said they had thought an accident occurred. All of them said they had immediately thought of terror, specifically the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in and around Paris, which killed 130 people and were largely plotted in Brussels.

“We were scared that there were people with guns coming,” said Johannie Hoedenaeken, a traveler who, like Preaud and Centeno, was eating at the Delifrance when the airport explosions occurred.

“That’s what happened in Paris. I really thought I was going to die.”
Carroll, the visitor from Washington, said he had followed news coverage about Belgium’s fractured governance and its response to the Paris attacks.

“This has been going on for a while, and the whole world is looking at Belgium,” he said. “All of us have doubts that the Belgian government can manage this situation. There are so many competing language groups. The police don’t cooperate well together.”

But amid the chaos, there were acts of altruism.

“A kid came out bleeding a lot,” said Ilaria Ruggiano, who was traveling with her mother and five others. “I tried to help him with a tissue, but it was not enough.”

Corbo, the actress, credited a security guard for escorting her and other passengers to a secure area on the tarmac. Despite the shock, she said, people remained.

“There was a lot of humanity amid all the horror,” she said. “We received water. I was hungry, and a stranger offered me some nuts. People were helping each other.”

Even in their shock, people sought to alert or protect others.

“A lady was crying and yelling at me in French,” said Murat Ueranuez, who was in the restaurant of the Sheraton Hotel across from the airport terminal, preparing for a conference of fraud examiners, when the blasts occurred. “She was panicked. I said, ‘I am sorry, I don’t speak French.’ She switched to English and, speaking with a heavy accent, said: ‘Don’t go out, don’t go out there. There are explosions.’ She was still crying and yelling and was obviously in shock.”

In the early evening, Belgian officials released a photo of three men captured from surveillance cameras, saying that two were suicide bombers and that they were looking for the third – who may have had a bomb that failed to go off. All three looked calm. Like many of their victims, they were pushing airport luggage carts.

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