Brussels Transforms From Europe's Capital to Place of Terror

Dramatic Footage Moments After Brussels Airport Blast
  • Residents race home as sirens sound, police occupy streets
  • Pharmacy becomes refuge for passengers escaping metro bombs

Brussels turned into a ghost city on Tuesday as a stunned population ran for shelter after at least 31 died in terror attacks. The government warned that accomplices could be on the loose in Belgium’s capital.

"No one feels safe any more," Paulette Leblanc, 59, said as she stood near Avenue Louise, one of Brussels’ main streets. Police and ambulance sirens sounded on all sides. She was running errands when the attacks took place. "It’s very sad," she said, before heading home.

Security forces outside Maelbeek metro station on March 22.
Security forces outside Maelbeek metro station on March 22.
Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

The streets filled with police and soldiers after two explosions at the airport in Zaventem and another in a subway train at the downtown Maelbeek station during rush hour led authorities to shut public transportation and suspend trains and flights. Traffic jammed and local media reported all of the city’s many highway tunnels were closed.

In the main shopping street on rue Neuve, most stores were closed. Signs explaining it was for security reasons were stuck onto doors and shutters. In the usually tourist-packed Grand-Place, where ornate 17th-century buildings hark back to the city’s mercantile past, barely two dozen people could be seen. People were writing messages of hope in chalk in front of the Bourse in the city center.

"I’m not afraid but it does create tension in the air,” said Thierry Mathelin, 52, who was leaving his job at a hotel. "People turn inward.” As for his own industry, he called the attacks a "complete catastrophe. All the events will be canceled for the next month. We were just recovering from November and now this happens."

Brussels-Paris

Brussels was connected to the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 last year: Most of the perpetrators were from the Molenbeek neighborhood in Brussels, including Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested in the Belgian city last week.

“We had our tragedy in France in November,” said a visiting 22-year-old French student who identified herself as Megan. “This morning we heard a lot of sirens and we wondered what was happening. Then we learned about the attacks.”

While the tally of dead and wounded climbed, witnesses described scenes of horror. "I saw a man who’d lost both legs, a policeman whose leg was completely crushed," said a man identified as Alphonse Lyoura and a security agent, in a BFM TV interview in front of the airport. "I saw it," he said, breaking down into sobs.

‘Shattered Glass’

"There was smoke, shattered glass everywhere," said a woman identified as Jacqueline Mahaut. Amateur footage shot in the departure hall and broadcast by the channel showed people running for cover, ducking behind trolleys piled with luggage amid screaming and shouting.

A stone’s throw from the European Commission’s headquarters, close to the metro station where a train was targeted, a pharmacy sheltered dazed passengers forced to evacuate the metro. Shocked clerks and shoppers rushed to offer them a seat and assist them as they spoke of smoke, explosions and confusion.

The area around the commission offices was almost entirely deserted. Flags flew at half-mast. From the subway underneath, near where the bombs had gone off, recorded music could be heard.

“There was a possibility of something like that happening in Brussels, of course,” said Agnieszka Lukaszczyk, 35, who works for the commission, “It is the capitol of Europe, host to the EU and NATO.” She would have been on the metro near where the bomb exploded if she hadn’t been running late. “I go through that station twice a day, if not more. I just couldn’t believe this was happening. I believed this must have been a nightmare.”

The city’s main shopping centers indicated on their websites they were closed until further notice. Schools and universities in the region also closed, Le Soir reported. Parents of younger schoolchildren were told not to pick them up until the regular time.

“The children will be safe,” said Rudi Vervoort, head of Brussels government. “We have to continue. I love Brussels, I love our way of life. We will try to reestablish normal life so this city and the region can continue to function.”

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