'We always felt something could happen in this city'
Published 23/03/2016 | 02:30
Blood stained the streets around the Maelbeek metro station in Brussels yesterday as EU officials, Belgian office workers and tourists came to grips with the latest terror attack to rock Europe.
A blast ripped through the metro stop at the heart of the EU quarter just over an hour after two explosions shattered the departures hall at Brussels airport, where people were travelling for the Easter holidays.
Irishman Joe Hennon, a former environment spokesman at the European Commission, was on a metro right behind the one that got blasted.
"It stopped and the lights went off," he said. "It wasn't clear what was happening but knowing about the airport attack I suspected the worst. I got off the train and left the station [one stop before]," he said.
He described a stampede of hundreds of people "gripped by some type of panic" coming towards the European Commission's Berlaymont headquarters from the direction of Maelbeek, just minutes after the blast.
"There is always the feeling in Brussels that something could happen sometime," Mr Hennon said.
"You think you are a target because of the presence of the EU and Nato."
As the manhunt continued for the suspects, Brussels went into lockdown for the second time in four months.
Police, ambulances and army personnel filled the streets while EU institutions, schools and businesses in the area were shuttered, with people still inside advised not to venture out.
Steffen Van Roosbroeck, a spokesman for the Flemish Christian Democratic Party (CD&V), which has its offices right by Maelbeek metro station, described the frightening sequence of events.
"Suddenly the building started shaking, so people knew something was happening," he said. "There was smoke coming out of the entrance to the subway," he added. "We opened our doors for the victims until the security services arrived, and afterwards our building was evacuated."
Makeshift hospitals for the victims were set up at the Thon Hotel beside the metro station and in the staff canteen at the Commission's humanitarian aid directorate on the Rue de la Loi.
Further up the road, officials working at EC headquarters and at the European Council - which hosts regular summits of EU leaders - were put on high alert and told to stay inside.
In the late afternoon, people were told it was safe to go outside, schoolchildren were let out and public transport restarted, but a series of raids across the city raised tensions once again as the manhunt escalated.
An EC spokesman said there was "no indication this was a terror attack on the EU institutions", but many who work there described an atmosphere of trauma, fear and suspicion because the blasts hit so close to home.
People in the city centre left condolence messages in chalk on the Boulevard Anspach, a newly pedestrianised avenue that cleaves the city centre in two.
Kevin McMullan, a Dublin native who has been living in Belgium for almost 30 years and who works in the area, described a sense of eeriness akin to last November's Paris attacks.
"It feels like déjà vu," said Mr McMullan, a spokesperson for city centre concert venue Ancienne Belgique.
"People are still a bit in shock, they are trying to grasp what has happened.
"There is a lot of solidarity. People are trying to help each other out."