It was as the metro train was beginning to pull out of Maelbeek station in the heart of Brussels at the height of rush-hour that the second of its three carriages was ripped apart.
Above ground, workers and inhabitants had been only beginning to turn their attention to early reports of the bombings at Zaventem airport, an hour earlier. But at 9.11am, commuters passing through the station close to the headquarters of several European Union institutions would have had little or no idea that their city was under attack until ill-fate put them on a train targeted by one of the bombers.
Pierre Meys, a firefighter for four decades, was one of the first to witness the aftermath. He said: “It’s war, it was indescribable. Everything in bits. In 40 years of doing to this job, it is the worst thing I have seen.”
Survivors said the train and platform had been crowded with commuters as the rushhour reached its peak. The carriages were pulling out from Maelbeek heading for the next stop, Schuman, which is the main station for the Belgian capital’s EU buildings, when the explosion happened.
One woman on board the train told Belgian state television: “We were heading towards the centre and the train had just started to move when there was the most enormous explosion. All the lights went out. At first there was no great surge of people – everything was very calm.
“Then several people managed to force open the door on our carriage and I rushed through it. The platform was full of smoke and I headed for the exit. I just pushed forward without looking back. I didn’t see any of the victims.”
Outside the station, Alexandre Brans, 32, who had also been on board the train headed for Arts-Loi in the city centre, wiped blood from his face as other walking wounded milled around with their clothes badly burned; one survivor stood with the stuffing of their jacket hanging in shreds. Mr Brans said: “There was a really loud explosion. It was panic everywhere.”
At the airport’s departure hall little more than an hour earlier, Alphonse Youla had been going about his duties as a baggage supervisor in the check-in area for flights departing to Africa when he heard a bang which he immediately recognised as a gun being fired. He said: “There was a shot and a man spoke in Arabic. After that I heard ‘boom’, an enormous explosion. People began running for the escalators or the lifts.
“Two elderly men came to me and I put them in the lift. But they didn’t want to let me go. There were so many people, I told myself there were others I had to help.”
The airport worker continued to shepherd passengers to safety before taking in the horrific scene in the destroyed check-in area. He continued: “There were burned bodies. The windows and the tiles from the ceiling had fallen down. I saw one body – the glass from the windows had fallen and cut both legs.”
Still wearing his blood-stained green uniform, Mr Youla was asked if he had himself been hurt. He said: “The blood isn’t mine. It’s from the people I helped.”
Ralph Usbeck, 55, an electronics technician from Berlin, was checking in his baggage for an American Airlines flight to Florida when the first blast struck.
He told the Associated Press: “I assumed it was training, but some litter was in the air, so I was not sure if it was a terrorist act. Seconds later, a much more heavy, heavy detonation happened... This was the moment I realised this was a terrorist act.”
Marc Noel, 63, an entrepreneur from North Carolina, had decided to go to a shop in the terminal to buy some motoring magazines while waiting for his Delta Airlines flight home. It was a decision that may have saved his life – as he was browsing the first explosion happened about 50 metres from him.
He said: “People were crying, shouting, children. It was a horrible experience. I don’t want to think about it, but I would probably have been in that place when the bomb went off. I was as close as I could be to the other side. I guess it’s not my hour.”
Julien, 24, a Belgian trainee accountant on his way to Sweden, said he saw bodies in a blur of panic. “There was this huge explosion, and everyone was in shock, some knocked to the ground,” he said. “When I looked back, through the mess and the dust, I could see people on the floor. I don’t know if they were dead, but they weren’t moving. I didn’t have time to check: we just ran out of there.”
At Maelbeek station, a survivor described how a moment of forgetfulness saved her life. The unnamed woman told Belgian state television: “I was on my phone and I noticed I’d forgotten my keys. I got back off the train and as I was crossing the platform I heard an explosion and all the windows [on the train] exploded behind me. People were running everywhere. There was a woman lying on the ground injured. I was saved because of my keys.”
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