The terrorist attacks in Brussels brought tales of carnage, confusion and courage, as the Belgian capital struggled to cope with an unfolding tragedy that left at least 34 dead.
EurActiv.com’s own Evan Lamos was on the scene, travelling on the metro to work at our offices opposite the European Commission building, when he heard the blast at Maelbeek metro station.
The 30-year old father was between Art-Loi and Maelbeek at 9.11am, when the terrorists struck. Five minutes earlier, he would have been caught in the explosion.
“We felt a blast of hot air and heard a thudding sound. It sounded like thunder in the distance. The metro immediately stopped, the power went off and the engine stalled,” Evan, who has a one-year-old daughter, said.
“A message came over the intercom saying there was a problem on the line. I didn’t immediately understand there had been an explosion.”
After about two to three minutes, officers opened up the backdoor of his carriage, the last one on the train, and put a ladder against the back of it.
“There was one person who was jumping over seats to get out of the back of the carriage but apart from him, people evacuated calmly. There wasn’t panic.
“There were people helping each other climb down, helping with kids and carrying strollers, as we walked back down the tracks to Art-Loi station.”
Lamos, a US citizen who has lived in Belgium for 15 years, helped one woman, who was with her child, with her stroller as they walked back to Arts-Loi through the dark tunnel.
Lamos took video footage as he walked back to Art-Loi – footage which has since been picked up by media across the world.
They were quickly shepherded away from Arts-Loi station by police and soldiers.
“At the time I thought it might just be a technical problem on the line but it was quite alarming when we saw the military. We didn’t realise it was an attack until we were evacuated out of Arts-Loi station.”
“There was already a sense of nervousness and tension on the metro because we had heard about the explosions at the airport. People had been checking their phones,” he said.
Our colleague Evan Lamos was in the metro between Arts-Loi and Maelbeek stations this morning when the explosion happened.
Lachlan Carmichael is a journalist with Agence-France Presse who has lived in Brussels for two years. He was on the metro between Arts-Loi and Maelbeek as well.
“We were pulling out of Arts-Loi station, we’d gone maybe 100 metres or so, when we felt this whoosh, like a shockwave,” he said.
The train came to a stop and a recorded message in French, Flemish and English, said there were technical difficulties on the line.
“The first thing I said to the guy next to me was ‘did you hear there was an attack at their airport?’” he said.
“Then the smoke started to come through into the carriage,” said Lachlan, 56, a dad of two daughters.
Carmichael, who is half Scottish and American, said the smoke got gradually thicker and thicker.
Train staff evacuated the carriage and he began walking back to Arts-Loi station. “I asked one of them if there had been an explosion. When she said yes, I alerted our newsdesk.”
As Carmichael walked back to Arts-Loi the smoke became thicker and thicker. “It began catching in my throat,” he said.
“I asked a woman next to me if she was scared – no one seemed to be panicking – she said yes. I told her she didn’t look like it.
“Believe me, she said, on the inside I am terrified’” After about 200 metres, the journalist – who has covered wars in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan – saw soldiers at the Arts-Loi platform. They evacuated him and his fellow passengers.
“I’ve experienced explosions in conflict zones before, he said, and there was the same concussive blast.”
Carmichael went down to the scene and was confronted with the horror of the attack outside Maelbeek station.
He said, “The Thon hotel nearby had been turned into a makeshift hospital. You don’t expect this to happen in a city that is ostensibly at peace, not on your way to work, your daily commute.”
Carmichael covered the rest of the day’s events. Asked how Brussels was reacting, he said, “It’s more shock than anything else. There’s no anger or defiance yet, just shock.”
Meanwhile, Dominique Ostyn, EurActiv’s head of communications, was just one stop away from Art-Loi and two from Maelbeek, at Parc station
The 37-year-old Belgian lives with his girlfriend in the centre of Brussels. He has lived in Brussels for 14 years.
“The metro stopped,” he said, “and a message came on the intercom asking us to leave the metro and train.”
Parc metro is near the Belgian government buildings. Ostyn saw ambulances and police cars with armed cops. He decided to continue down to his office, which took him straight past the Maelbeek metro station.
“I could smell smoke and then I could see smoke coming out of the three or four exits to the Maelbeek metro station,” he said.
“There were victims lying on the ground. There were people injured and people in shock. You could see that they had gold or silver tinfoil wrapped around their shoulders.
“There were lots of white sheets and towels. They had been rushed from a nearby hotel to help the wounded.”
“There was a burnt smell. Afterwards the word that best describes it is carnage.”
Ostyn watched as cordons went up and police evacuated the area before carrying onto his workplace, which is opposite the European Commission building.
“At first I felt calm because the police were there and it was clear that precautions were being taken but afterwards I felt shock.”
Casualties could have been worse at the Maelbeek metro station, had it not been for many EU officials taking time off for the Easter break.
The metro line is a major thoroughfare for employees commuting to work at the EU institutions.
Easter break may have saved lives
But the Commission has an extended Easter break, beginning on Thursday and finishing on Tuesday. Many officials take this week off to turn the break into a week.
However, this could mean that some officials were at Brussels airport when the terrorists first struck.
As of mid-afternoon in Brussels, it was still unclear whether any officials had been killed in the blast.
But the institutions were ringing around their staff – a process made more difficult by the Easter break – to see if anyone is missing.
A European Commission official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the atmosphere in the Berlaymont building was “confused and shocked”.
“We have been expecting something like this to happen,” he said, “but we don’t think we were the target.”
“These people are indiscriminate. We’ve seen it in other countries such as Spain and the UK that have suffered terrorism. It doesn’t matter where they do this, it will have a major impact.
“The thing with Brussels is that if you explode a bomb anywhere, you will kill people from countries all over Europe,” he added angrily.
‘I’ve seen this in Northern Ireland – never in Brussels’
Gary Cartwright, 54, used to work in EU institutions but is now a consultant in the private sector. He has lived in Brussels for almost 12 years.
“In the mornings Maelbeek is real rush hour. The station is packed. Trains are coming through every couple of minutes. The trains are so full at rush hour you can’t get on them,” the veteran of three tours of military service in Northern Ireland said.
“Thank God it’s the school holidays, thank God it is the school holidays. That station at that time can be packed with children.”
Most schools in Brussels are yet on Easter holidays, it should be noted.
“What made it very chilling and close to home is that the bomb at Maelbeek happened just yards from where I lived for nine years and at 8am – well that would have been the time I took my son to school. “
Cartwright was at home when the first explosions happened but still walked in. Then the second explosions at the nearby Maelbeek station happened.
The former British Army serviceman had tried to reach friends and colleagues but the mobile networks in the European Union quarter were down.
“As I understand it, they were using mobile phones to set off the bombs,” he said. This has not been confirmed elsewhere, and may just be speculation. “It’s a horrible day but it’s one of those days we are always going to remember.”
“I did three tours in Northern Ireland when I was in the Armed Forces. I’ve seen things like this happen close-up but I thought this was in the past,” he added.
“What I’d seen in Northern Ireland, the South Atlantic and Beirut – I never thought I’d see it in Brussels at the age of 54, when I’m looking after my children. I thought that part of my life was finished.”
Cartwright said that Brussels was safer than cities like London. “But apparently this has been festering behind the scenes.”
Cartwright is thinking about leaving Brussels but not because of today’s attacks. “It’s very important when you look at these kind of people, that you don’t let them make your decision for you.
“It’s hard but you have to stand up to them. You cannot allow them to change your life.”
Cartwright said, “I think a lot of people who work in the EU institutions are going to be very shocked by this., To be frank they lead very cossetted lives. This is a wake-up call for the apparatchiks and the politicians.”
“Things are going so horribly wrong in Brussels that we are having emergency summits every week.”
“We are still 28 countries no matter what the people in the European Commission thing and I think the cracks are really beginning to show now.”
Keeping calm and carrying on
At the local EXKI café on Rue Froissart, in the heart of the European quarter of Brussels, the eight-strong team of staff had been told they couldn’t leave.
They had begun work at 6:30AM as usual but, after the explosions at the nearby Maelbeek metro station, found themselves in the centre of the police cordon.
They continued to serve their normal clientele of EU officials as the drama unfolded.
One young waitress, who asked not to be named, said that the workers were scared when they heard about the first blast at Brussels International Airport.
They became more scared when they heard the second blast.
“It’s not good that we can’t leave. We have to continue working, we have no choice,” the waitress said.
“It’s scary because this is the area we work in and all the EU institutions are around us.”
‘Institution are a target’
Dafydd ab Iago, 47, is a Welsh journalist living in Brussels. He recently took Belgian citizenship. He lives in the capital with his Spanish girlfriend and two children, aged three and nine.
He has not taken the metro for two years because he feared just the kind of terrorist attack that happened today.
“The EU institutions are a target,” he said, “and they hadn’t been hit until now.”
iago smelt the smoke and saw one man with his face heavily bandaged near to the metro station.
“The heat was so intense that people on the street outside the metro were burned,” he said. “People were lying on the street but the dead weren’t there.”
The European Parliament was in lockdown, with soldiers and security stationed outside. Metal guards had been lowered in front of its front doors. There was a heavy police and army presence in the region.
At one moment, six police vans drove up to the area, followed by two police cars. In the passenger seat, there was an officer wearing a balaclava and toting a machine gun through the open window.
The EU institutions were a tempting target because of all the different nationalities that work there, said Iago.
“We haven’t seen a list of casualties but this will have maximum impact, he said. “There could be people hurt from all over Europe – Danes, Germans, Brits, Belgians.”
Iago was worried about his children. At the time of the last lockdown in Brussels, he and other families were kept waiting at school to pick up their children. Some schools even had snipers on their roofs.
“I won’t be surprised if they close the schools tomorrow,” he said.
“We were meant to go to the airport to fly to Spain on Monday but I don’t know if that will happen now,” he added.
The bomb was reported to have gone off in the departures lounge, near a Starbucks café and the American Airlines registration desk.
Asked if he was considering leaving Brussels, Iago said the same thing could have happened in London.
“I really think the only way to fight this is by finding a Europe-wide solution,” he added.
“The problem is that those Brits who want Brexit don’t realise that.”
Ankara, Paris, Istanbul
Andreas Gahleitner is 33, and an Austrian. He has lived in Brussels for three years, and works for the European Aluminium Association. Normally he would have been at Maelbeek when the bombs went off – but not today.
He said, “I’m physically unharmed, but I am not OK. Maelbeek metro station at 9am, that’s me. Every day, except today.
“This morning I went to pick up the keys to my new flat and was at work early. “
Andreas said he had received many concerned messages from family and friends.
“Ankara, Paris, Istanbul, I have friends there and I hoped I would never have to answer the kind of messages I had to send to them in the past,” he said.