Friday 30 September 2016

Irish in Brussels: 'A woman walked past me and half her hair was gone'

Geraldine Gittens, Meadhbh McGrath and Conor Feehan

Published 22/03/2016 | 11:21

Passengers walk on underground metro tracks to be evacuated after an explosion at Maelbeek train station in Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. Reuters/Courtesy @OSOSXE via Twitter
Passengers walk on underground metro tracks to be evacuated after an explosion at Maelbeek train station in Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. Reuters/Courtesy @OSOSXE via Twitter
People wrapped in blankets leave the scene of explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. Reuters/Francois Lenoir
Irish man Tom Moylan, who lives and works in Brussels.

An Irishman in Brussels who works in an office just above Maelbeek station where this morning's explosion happened has said he witnessed injured people being carried out of the metro.

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Graham White, an Irish man working for the Brussels-based Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, said he felt a tremor in his office building when the explosion happened at Maelbeek station.

“Our office is just above Maelbeek station. It was a normal morning. I took the subway to work, I get off at Maelbeek, go in the building and switch my PC on.

“There was a tremor in the floor, a bit of a bang. I didn’t really think anything of it because there’s a lot of construction in the area, but then a colleague ran to the office and said to get away from that window, that there’s been a bomb in Maelbeek,” Mr White told RTE Radio One’s News at One.

He said the police, ambulances and fire brigade arrived on the scene within seconds, as the fire alarm began to go off in his office.

Mr White and his colleagues were quickly evacuated, and he described the horrific scene outside the metro station.

“I saw a few bodies being carried out. A woman walked past me and half her hair was gone.

“Then the police started screaming at us to run, there was another bomb. There were 500 people running down the street, it was just chaos.”

The Belgian police advised people on the streets to move away from the entrance to the metro station as quickly as possible.

When Mr White arrived at Ambiorix Square, a short walk from the station, he received a security alert on his phone urging him to head home.

“The first thing I did was call a couple of family members from my office phone, then I put something up on social media to let people know I was fine.”

When asked whether he felt safe, Mr White’s voice began to tremble. He noted that he was expecting to fly home to Ireland tomorrow for Easter, but now his flight is likely to be cancelled.

“I’m a bit scared to be honest, and I’m still kind of in shock. If I’d have taken the metro five minutes later I would have been on that metro. I’m trying to make sense of it.

“I’m scared, I’m not afraid to say it. I take the metro to work every day. I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”

One Irish man who works just 100 metres away from the site of this morning's explosion in Brussels has described how dust was pouring from the metro and through the tunnel in its aftermath.

Tom Moylan, who works for the European Commission and has been living in Brussels for two years, says his friend was on the metro train just one stop away from where the explosion happened.

“I’m just down the road in the Charlemagne, the European Community building, which is around 50 to 100 metres from where it happened. We can see it all from our window.”

“A friend of mine was one stop away from the station. He could hear the explosion in the tunnel which is pretty freaky. The explosion raised all kinds of dust down the tunnel.”

“You can see Maelbeek station is cordoned off, the length of the street is blocked off. There are police and ambulances, and journalists at the end of the street. The police have put up a screen to block off the area and allow them to do their work.”

“I got a phone call from a friend of mine who was freaking out when she was driving by and she saw people walking out of the station covered in blood.”

“And a colleague ran into us and was shouting about it.”

“Everything is blocked off, and smoke is coming out of the metro station. Since it happened, we’ve all been trying to find out where friends and colleagues are, and nearly all my friends and colleagues have been accounted for.”

The public is using the Facebook safety check which is letting everyone know who has been accounted for.

“At the moment everyone is wandering around the hallways like zombies a little bit… It’s weird balancing between trying to work and trying to see if everyone is safe… They’re not letting us out of the building for the moment anyway.”

“When something like this happens, it’s just horrible.”

“It’s unnerving. After the Paris attacks there’s always a sense of unease but it’s still sort of distant. There’s always that thing in the back of your head, especially since it was so close and tied up in the place we live.”

Meanwhile, John Harkin, the son of independent MEP Marian Harkin, was at Maelbeek metro station just minutes before the attack.

“I was taking my normal commute to a meeting I had in the area, so I took the metro and got out at Maelbeek station,” he told independent.ie.

“Five minutes after that, the bomb went off. Thankfully, I had just walked away.”

Mr Harkin, who is originally from Sligo, has been living in Brussels for seven years and working as a policy advisor for the European employers’ organisation CEEMET.

He explained that by the time he reached his meeting, pictures from the explosion had started to circulate.

“I was shocked. Having been that close to it, I was very shocked, more so for the people who were injured at the station. We still don’t know the number of people injured, but I was shocked.”

Mr Harkin was described his relief that he was lucky to have made such a narrow escape.

“As I left my house, my girlfriend and I parted ways. She was heading to the supermarket, but I said no, I was running a bit tight, so I decided to go straight to work – had I gone with her, it could have been a different story.”

When he arrived at work, Mr Harkin was told there was no need to stay, and he headed straight home.

“I know that all my colleagues are safe, I’ve spoken to them. As for my friends, information is trickling down that the majority are safe.

“We’re still looking to hear from one or two people, but as of now everybody I’ve spoken to is safe.”

The city is now in lockdown, Mr Harkin added.

“It is tense. Shops are closed, businesses are now beginning to close, public transport is closed. It’s clear now that we’re going for another lockdown.”

O'Reilly's Irish pub in Place de la Bourse in the city has said it is closing today as a mark of respect for those caught up in the tragedy.

"We have closed today in sympathy with all caught up in the tragedy," owner/manager Seamus McCarthy told independent.ie.

“Everyone’s being told to stay in their workplaces. My wife is in Toyota very near the airport - they are not allowed out. A friend wasn't allowed leave school when dropping off his daughters.”

“It’s terribly sad for the victims and their families… it’s worrying times to be bringing up our little boys in Brussels. My dad left Dublin to bring us up in Galway in 1974 after the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Perhaps history may repeat itself in that his eldest son may have to do the same for his family.”

“Although Brussels and its people are very resilient and we feel we may get back to our normal lives quite quickly almost in defiance. God rest the poor souls who lost their lives today.”

Olof Gill, who works with European Commissioner Phil Hogan and manages the Brussels GAA team, said social media is playing a vital role in helping people communicate.

“People are taking to social media to alert everyone that they are safe, and to keep up with the news. So far we think everyone from Ireland is safe. There is a massive number of Irish in Brussels,” he told the Herald.

“Just now we have heard that the Gare Centrale, Arts-Loi, Schuman and Maalbeek metro stations have been evacuated, and the agriculture building near to Maalbeek as well,” he added.

The metro stations are on the busiest lines in Brussels and were said to be full at the time of the blasts.

Olof Gill said people are trying to carry on with their work and their lives to the best of their ability despite the terror threat.

“It is business as usual within the boundaries that are set,” he said.

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it is understood so far that no Irish citizens have been involved in the tragedy.

“As far as we are aware no Irish citizen is involved here. With such tragic circumstances one can never be sure of what’s happened,” he said.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin also said that the atrocities in Brussels were an affront to everyone and part of a Europe-wide trend in terrorist attacks.

On behalf of the Independent Alliance, Deputy Shane Ross, expressed "utter revulsion" at the latest terrorist attacks in Brussels.

The Dáil stood for a minute’s silence to remember the victims.

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