Wednesday 21 March 2018

'There was just blood. It was like the apocalypse'

Day of murder and mayhem leaves city feeling like a war zone, writes Robert Mendick

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Click to view full size graphic
A soldier is seen at Zaventem airport after a blast occurred. Photo: Reuters
A man lies wounded in the departure lounge of Zaventem Airport in Brussels. Photo: Ketevan Kardava/AP
Passengers are evacuated from the train in a tunnel near Maelbeek metro station. Photo: @evanlamos/Twitter/PA

Robert Mendick

It was, until the carnage, like any other busy international airport on a busy Tuesday morning. Passengers queuing at the check-in desks in Zaventem Airport's international departures hall had noticed nothing untoward. Neither had the baggage handlers, airline staff, cleaners or restaurant workers.

Then, just after 8am local time, a shout rang through its main Departure Hall 1 on the airport's third level. Perhaps nobody quite realised its significance. But a voice screamed something loud and in Arabic. And immediately after, all hell broke loose.

"I heard a man shout some Arabic words. I didn't see him. He was behind me. I just heard the words. I don't speak Arabic so I don't know what he said," recalled Alphonse Youla, an airport worker, still in shock at his astonishing escape, his hands covered in blood. He thought too he had heard a gunshot before that, possibly as a further signal to sound the attack.

Anthony Deloos, a baggage handler, heard the first bang and at first thought a billboard sign had collapsed. A colleague told him to run for it. "Twenty metres from us we heard a big explosion," said Mr Deloos, "I jumped into a luggage chute to be safe."

The two men on the left are believed to have blown themselves up while the man on the right is being sought by police. Belgian Federal Police/PA Wire
The two men on the left are believed to have blown themselves up while the man on the right is being sought by police. Belgian Federal Police/PA Wire

Grant and Denise Matthews, heading home to Belfast after a weekend away in Bruges, had been using the electronic passport scanner.

"There were kids behind us charging around," said Mr Matthews, a veteran of the Territorial Army Medical Corps.

"We checked through with our passports, walked five seconds on and then bang."

His wife Denise said: "It was a strange sound, like a whoosh, then a bang, and then dust and the ceiling came down. A man was on the floor, his leg just a mess."

The bomb had exploded some 30 yards behind them. "Twenty seconds earlier we would have been right in the middle of it," said Mr Matthews.

The first bomb had gone off, according to early reports, at American Airlines' check-in desk, although the airline was quick to deny it had been targeted. Later reports suggested the first explosion was at aisle eight at the desk used to check in outsize baggage.

A CCTV image released by Belgian security services showed three men pushing baggage trolleys through the departure hall shortly before the blasts. Two of the men, clad in black, had gloves on one hand only, with a suggestion that they somehow masked the explosives' triggers. Certainly, nobody seemed to notice the men mingling with the other passengers.

Pavel Ohal, travelling with his wife, was keeping an eye on his two-year-old son as he queued with their passports and tickets in his hand.

Blown out windows are seen at Zaventem Airport in Brussels after coordinated bomb attacks on the airport and the Metro system brought terror to the Belgian capital.. Photo credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Blown out windows are seen at Zaventem Airport in Brussels after coordinated bomb attacks on the airport and the Metro system brought terror to the Belgian capital.. Photo credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

"We were standing in the line to check in. There was a huge explosion, and people fell down all around me, and my papers blew out of my hands. I turned around and there was a fire on the floor, and small fires all around, and a lot of very badly injured people. My son was cut in the head when the ceiling came down."

About 10 to 30 seconds after the first blast, a second explosion echoed through the building, close to the Starbucks café at the entrance to the departure hall.

Anybody racing for the exit after the first blast would have run straight into the second.

According to Mr Youla (40) the airport worker who had begun his shift four hours earlier, the second explosion was "a massive explosion, much bigger than the first".

Tears welling in his eyes, he added: "It was a horror. I saw at least seven people dead. There was blood. People had lost legs. You could see their bodies but no legs."

His account would tally with later reports suggesting that one bomb was much larger and hidden in a suitcase, indicating the first explosion may have been from a suicide bomber detonating his explosive vest - perhaps to deliberately force a stampede towards the bigger bomb.

Samir Derrouich, who works at an airport restaurant, said: "The two explosions were almost simultaneous. They were both at a check-in desk. One was close to the Starbucks. It was awful. There was just blood. It was like the apocalypse."

Dries Valaert (30), who was waiting for his boarding pass for a flight to Berlin, said: "There was a first blast and then 10 seconds later a second explosion. It was a big blast, the ceiling went down. It was just 30 metres from where I was. I saw people down on the ground and I just went running. I jumped over the security fences towards the departure gates as I thought it would be safer.

"My first intuition was to get out in case there were attackers with guns. I saw a woman around 18 years old with a hole in her hand with blood pouring out and a man with an injured ankle and two people down. There was lots of panic. People were running all over the place.

"The explosions were just behind the service desks, they were blown towards us. To me it is the most realistic possibility. I don't think it was someone with a suicide vest."

The blasts were hugely powerful, sending shockwaves through the terminal building that shattered windows, ruptured the metal pipes and sent ceiling tiles crashing to the floor. Those passengers who still could, ran for their lives, the debris of glass, pipes and tiles raining down upon them.

"We were walking in the debris. It was a war scene," said Zach Mouzoun, who had arrived on a flight from Geneva about 10 minutes before the explosion. "It was atrocious. The ceilings collapsed. There was blood everywhere, injured people, bags everywhere."

Another eyewitness, who would give his name only as Dimitri, said he had heard what he thought was gunfire. "I heard two loud noises, like shooting. Then right away we heard this big explosion," said Dmitri."We just started running. Someone said they heard him shout something in Arabic and they started shooting before this big explosion. We left everything and just started running."

Likened to "apocalyptic scenes, with blood and dismembered bodies everywhere", photographs from inside the building showed bodies covered in blood, lying amid the debris.

Video footage showed a smoke-filled hall with passengers cowering on the floor, amid discarded luggage, screams ringing out across the cavernous hanger. For all the world it looks like a battlefield. Black and white ceiling tiles covered the floor and a thick layer of dust covered those.

Bits of wood and metal debris was torn apart in the main hall of an airport that handles some 60,000 passengers a day, equivalent to 23 million a year. Seemingly, only a giant modern bronze sculpture that stands in the middle of the departure hall properly survived the blasts.

Video footage taken on mobile phones from outside the terminal showed passengers and staff fleeing for their lives.

The bombs were designed to cause maximum carnage. A hospital spokesman would reveal a few hours later that the bombs appeared to have been packed with nails to inflict indiscriminate damage.

Marc Decramer, a manager at the Gasthuisberg hospital in Leuven, said the hospital was treating 11 people with serious injuries, three of them in critical condition.

Mr Decramer said the wounded had "fractures and deep cuts caused by flying glass and nails".

As the police, security forces, ambulance and fire crews raced to the airport in Zaventem, about seven miles from the centre of Brussels, what they didn't know was that the terrorists were preparing to strike a second time.

On this occasion, they would hit at the heart of the city, close to the European Union institutions that has transformed Brussels into the emblematic capital of Western Europe.

Some 79 minutes after the Brussels Airport attack, reports filtered through of a bomb on the Metro at Maelbeek station, 400 yards from the EU's headquarters.

A train had just pulled into the station at 9.19am, thought to be heading west when a suicide bomber struck.

Photographs taken at street level showed smoke pouring out of the ground.

It only gave a hint of the terror and chaos down below.

"We are being evacuated from the back of the Metro," tweeted Evan Lamos and with it he posted a photograph of a smoke-filled tunnel and passengers climbing from his train to walk along the tracks to safety.

A huge bomb had gone off inside a train carriage.

A survivor, who gave his name only as Nizier, told local journalists of the horror after leaving a hospital, having been treated for his injuries.

"I saw a burned baby, a burned pregnant woman," he said, adding that the bomb exploded on the platform of the Maelbeek metro station, just one stop from the European Commission and EU Council buildings at Schuman metro station.

He recounted seeing a flash that was followed "by total panic".

"There were so many injuries. It was horrific. I'm in shock," said the businessman, black soot still visible on his lower lip.

And it seemed like an "eternity" before they managed to leave the station, he added.

Alexandre Brans (32), who was wiping blood from his face, said the bomb had gone off at the height of rush hour.

"The metro was leaving Maelbeek station when there was a really loud explosion. It was panic everywhere. There were a lot of people on the metro," said Mr Brans.

Another witness, who was not identified, said: "The lights went off, there was panic given what happened at Brussels airport.

"The doors of the train were forced open to get off the train.

"There was a lot of smoke. We left via Maelbeek station. The glass doors were blown out. The explosion must have been enormous."

Black smoke and clouds of dust billowed from the station entrance, while more than a dozen people lay on the pavement outside with bloodied faces, being treated by emergency services.

As the toll of the dead and injured mounted, the hunt began for the attackers. Reports suggested one body had been found at the airport with a kalashnikov rifle and unexploded suicide vest at his side. A third unexploded bomb was found at the scene and destroyed in a controlled explosion.

The CCTV footage of three men pushing trollies through the airport was being widely circulated in French and Belgian media.

The two men, wearing black, had blown themselves up in the terror attack; the third man, seen wearing a hat, had left the nail bomb in the suitcase behind and then fled the airport. He is said to be at the centre of the manhunt.

Back at the metro, an eyewitness had claimed to see a suspicious man, driving off fast in a red Volkswagen. At 11am, as hundreds of troops and police flooded the streets of Brussels, two suspects were arrested a mile from the Maelbeek metro station. They were surrounded by armed police and made to kneel on the pavement as they were captured. Last night it remained unclear how - if at all - they were involved in the attack.

As evening drew in, Brussels remained in lockdown. The airports were shut and the train stations closed. Politicians said Belgium was at war. After a day of murder and mayhem, it was a feeling shared by the local population. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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