We spend significant time at Hillard Heintze working with our clients to help them prevent problems and also help them mitigate and manage issues such as workplace violence, threats and even occasional disasters. It’s our world, and we work diligently to help ensure it does not become theirs. But on the heels of a major disaster or terrorist attack, we (probably like you) ask ourselves, “If I had been there, how would I have responded? How would I have counseled our clients to respond?” So I was enthralled when I received an email from a friend and professional colleague last week. She told me she was catching a flight out of the Brussels airport after surviving the March 22 bombing.
Today, I wanted her to tell her story, tomorrow, we will discuss some thoughts on what you should do in this situation.
“My business trip to Brussels was expected to be a short one. I landed on Tuesday, March 22nd at approximately 7:00 a.m. and made it through border security within ten minutes. My plan for the day was to visit Brugge, which is about 90 minutes away via train. I bought my train tickets in advance and was early for the 8:59 train, so I sat down in the arrivals hall and logged onto my laptop. I made brief eye contact with two heavily armed officers patrolling the area. This was nothing new to me. As I travel the world for my work, I often see police presence in many airports and train stations. After buying a cappuccino to go, I made my way downstairs to the train station, which is two floors below the departures level.
“The time was about 7:58am, and I realized I would not make the 7:59am train even if I ran. As I stood in front of the monitors looking over the train schedule, I heard something that made me turn around. Apparently, that was the first bomb blast. A second later, the whole building shook violently and the glass doors to the train station and elevator blew out. Ceiling tiles fell to the floor, and smoke began to fill the area. I watched the cable to the elevator fall down on top of it. A couple that just got off the elevator stood bewildered. A man nearby started bleeding from a cut on his hand.
“I began to shake. The first thought that went through my head was that I may not get out of here. I thought the building may collapse. I thought there might be more explosions. I knew I was on the basement level. I immediately got on the phone to call my father. My father said later my first words were, “I’m ok.” I remember telling him something bad had happened, and it sounded like a bomb. I told him to put on the television or go online. I felt horrible having to imagine my parents, being awakened in the middle of the night to hear this news. I didn’t want them to panic. Later, my father told me CNN began reporting on the explosion within 15 minutes of my call.
”I did not tell my father my fears on the phone, but I’m sure he knew I was scared. His voice kept me calm. Amidst the uncertainty, I needed to find familiarity. Several employees got on their hand-held radios to try and verify what happened, and one of them said the elevator had crashed to the ground. I knew in my gut what was happening, that this was a terrorist attack. It felt like I was watching a movie. What I had heard sounded like a bomb blast.
“A few moments later, airport staff told us to run outside. They opened a side ramp where we walked up to the outside of the airport. I could feel the atmosphere shift from confusion to fear. Amidst the chaos, I slipped on the slick floor of the train station, where a young woman immediately lifted me up from behind. I had the opportunity to thank her when we got outside.
“Crowds of people began pouring out from the airport and started walking hurriedly away. Many were crying and shaking and some had blood on their hands and faces. No one around me knew what happened, and many were on their phones. After contacting my superior at work and family again, I quickly made a reservation at a nearby hotel. I probably went into survival mode knowing there was no way I was going anywhere.
“While waiting outside the airport, the stream of police cars, ambulances and fire trucks never ended. I paced back and forth a while, and called my parents a few more times. They said it wasn’t clear what happened, and authorities were still investigating. I’m not sure if they knew and were not telling me. Taxis and buses were not being allowed in, and most had driven away. I then began walking two miles to the hotel with my luggage in tow.
“As I walked, part of which was on the expressway, police cars and motorcycles sped past with lights and sirens blaring. The press vehicles were not allowed near the airport, and I passed hordes of them on foot rushing to get closer. Many of the journalists and camera personnel stopped passengers for statements and sound bites. I managed to flag down a taxi for part of my walk to the hotel. The hotel was already on lockdown and the staff carefully opened the door for people one at a time. When I got to the hotel, the lobby was filled with passengers and flight crew.
“The magnitude of the situation did not hit me until I was able to watch the news. I learned of the suicide bomber at the metro train station as well as the suicide bombers at the airport; I learned of the people that died. Later, a cell phone video was broadcast of the immediate aftermath that I will never forget. The sounds of screaming and crying and pools of blood will forever be etched in my mind.
“I couldn’t stop watching the news. I knew I should turn it off, but even as I tried to sleep, I kept the TV on. Being jet lagged and pumped with adrenaline, I couldn’t sleep for more than two hours at a time. Each time I closed my eyes, I saw the blast. I saw the doors to the train station leading out to the elevator and escalators I came down from. I wonder what happened to those two officers I saw in the arrivals hall. I wonder if the barista I talked to in the coffee bar was ok. My support system at home is large, but I still felt guilty because I am alive and physically unhurt when so many were killed and injured.
“One of the scariest realities is that even with heavy police presence, this violent attack still occurred. It did not matter that police patrolled the airport prior to security. It can literally happen that easily and effortlessly. This experience, however, does not make me want to stop traveling; I will continue to do it as long and as often as possible.
“I was able to secure a flight out of Frankfurt for Friday, March 25th, so I was going to have to take a train to Germany. Although local trains in Belgium began running, they were extremely delayed. After waiting almost an hour at the Diegem station near my hotel, I decided to take an Uber with three other passengers I met who were also trying to get to one of the main stations. The four of us discussed the recent events, shared our fears and grieved together.
“I arrived at the Bruxelles-Nord train station fearing I had missed my Deutsche Bahn train to Frankfurt. My bags were searched, and a police officer patted me down. Since the European Union has open borders, I arrived in Germany with no check of my passport. Even on the train, no one even checked my ticket. I got off the train at the Frankfurt airport and walked directly in.
“I’m still processing what happened, but it will take some time. I still can’t close my eyes without seeing the explosion, and I physically shudder each time. I can’t sleep through the night yet, and have the same reoccurring dreams. Some dreams involve not being able to shut doors and keep people out to protect my family inside. In others dreams, I am at my dance recital, but don’t know the routine. Either way, the situations I experience in these dreams show me unprepared to deal with an overwhelming task at hand. I’m working to keep busy and stay active, but I’m also trying to allow myself to process the emotional trauma I experienced. One thing I do know for sure is that I will never be the same.”