Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My account of the terrorists attacks on Brussels, March 22, 2016

Some of you may know that I live in Brussels now. So, this isn't going to by the typical post about fishing. Unfortunately, it's a much more somber post.  This is how March 22, 2016 unfolded for me.

First off, I have to let you all know that I am fortunate to say that me and all my friends are fine, well, at least not physically injured. I was in my office at Vrije University Brussels (VUB) around 8:10 am as usual. Around 9 am my colleague, Joanna, arrived and asked if I had heard the news. There was an explosion at the Brussels airport. We started looking online for information when we heard that there had just been another explosion, this one at the metro station Maelbeek, around 9:15. We immediately tried to find out about our colleagues, Mahi, Safâa, Edina, and Jemima, who would all be traveling through that stop. It was only a few minutes, but seemed like an eternity. We found out that Mahi was trying to take the metro but was turned back. Safâa was traveling by car and was also told to turn back. Jemima, who comes into the city by train then takes the metro through Maelbeek, was also turned around at the North Station. Edina had taken a few days off and was a home. What a relief! Everyone was OK. That started the spider web of texts between me, my friends, my colleagues, and their friends. We were getting reports via text before we saw them confirmed on online news sources. There was a second explosion at the airport, there were several explosions at different metro stations in the European District Area (these proved later to just be rumors), all public transportation has been shut down and we are told to all stay put. That’s when we learned that the ULB, the neighboring campus was evacuated, but we didn’t know why. 

About 10 AM, in an attempt to continue business as usual, we had our monthly departmental meeting. I couldn’t pay attention at all. I had my laptop with me trying to figure out what the hell was happening to the city I now call home. Trying to get in touch with friends that may have gone through Maelbeek Station. I had sent a text to Enser earlier, he works at the European Commission, but I hadn’t heard back. Then I texted Anne to see if she had heard from Enser, but I hadn’t heard back from her either. Ok, now I’m worried about both of them.

We were getting mixed and confusing reports from the VUB, that afternoon meetings were cancelled but classes were to continue as usual. Then that classes were cancelled but we weren’t supposed to leave campus. These messages were all in Dutch, making them even less clear to me. Even Google Translate has its limits. Finally, after an hour of trying to look attentive, the meeting was over.

At 11:30 a handful of us decided we’d better go grab a sandwich, in case the situation changes and the shop closes. Terrorist attacks are always worse on an empty stomach. We turned the corner to find four soldiers were guarding the shop. Soldiers have become a normal sight in Brussels since the attacks in Paris. You often see them patrolling in pairs. But these four somehow seemed different, more somber, more grave. Seeing them evoked a wave of the realization of the situation. Waiting in line to order, two soldiers came into the shop, scaring all of us who were already on edge. “Well, I did see one of them out there with a coke, maybe they are just going to the loo” said Jonas. Soldiers are people too.

We returned to our offices with food in hand, only to find out someone was giving away cake down stairs. Turned out, a woman in the economic department was to have her public defense that day. It was cancelled, of course, but not before her order of treats for the after party had arrived. I did my duty and had a really nice chocolate mousse. Then came a report that the bomb squad was at Etterbeek Station, a small train station about a block or two from the VUB.

Finally, I heard from Enser. He was on the bus and because of the explosion at Maelbeek, got rerouted. Ann was in stuck in London. At least she was safe! Back upstairs in my office, things started to get weird and scary. There was a report of a small explosion at Etterbeek Station and a “suspicious package” at Delta Station, another small train station right next to the ULB. That must have been the reason campus was evacuated earlier that day. In came a report that there was an armed man spotted on campus. Then the news that there is now a “concrete threat” on campus and to stay indoors. Ronnie, from the secretary’s office came around a took a head count. Ok, was official. I was freaked! We had been discussing all morning that we felt like sitting ducks here at the VUB. Security isn’t real high and a university seemed like a potential target. We all agreed we’d feel safer at home, but were told to stay off the streets, for the time being. And with no public transportation running, that’s exactly where we would be.

Then we heard an explosion close by. No body panicked, I think we were all too stunned. But, holy shit! Things just got real. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably about 15 minutes, we were told that the explosion was controlled. Police had found a suspicious car near campus and blew it up. That’s when I learned there is a police station right across the street, which was also thought to be a potential target.

About 3 PM campus got the all clear and we were told we were free to leave. I think we all took off like a shot! It was eerie to walk out onto an empty campus. Joanna, Matheiu and I all live more less in the same neighborhood so the three of us walked home together. Traffic was amazingly congested since there was no public transportation running and several of the city’s tunnels were closed. Lots of people were on foot, too. It was only a 30-minute walk home for me. Under different circumstances, it would have been a pleasant walk.

The rest of the day was letting friends and family know I was alright and watching it all unfold online. Though, I was happy to see strangers pull together through this trying time and try to help one another out. People were on Facebook, offering spare rooms and rides to stranded strangers. Hotels were offering free rooms, internet companies were offering free Wi-Fi in efforts to help keep phone lines clear. It was heart warming to see the city pull together. 

I know this is a lot different than the accounts you are seeing on TV or reading about. This was just my experience of the tragic day.

Though it has been my home for only a few months now, there is one thing I know about Brussels. You can’t keep this city down. Though she is wounded and grieving, she is determined to get back up, dust herself off, and just keep on keeping on. I don't know about you, but admire that in a city. 

Memorial at the Bourse in downtown Brussels, March 23, 2016

People gathered at the Bourse in downtown Brussels, March 23, 2016

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