(Editor’s Note: On the morning of March 22, 2016, two bombings occurred at the Brussels Airport in Zaventem, Belgium and one at the country’s Maalbeek metro station. A fourth bomb was found during a search of the airport. The jihadist terrorist organization ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed 32 people, three suicide bombers and injured 300. South Plainfield resident Norma Patel was at the Brussels Airport that morning and shared her experiences with TAPinto South Plainfield).
SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – When Norma Patel arrived at the Brussels Airport from Mumbai at 7:28 a.m. March 22 she was more than ready to return home to South Plainfield after having spent 12 days in India with her brother and sister-in-law.
Their Jet Airways flight from Brussels to Newark was scheduled to depart at 9:30 a.m. but, as they entered the elevator that would take them up to the assigned gate, a loud boom shook the airport. It was just before 8 a.m. Belgium time and the start of what would turn out to be a four-day journey to get home.
When the elevator doors opened, Patel said people were running and crying. Patel, along with her brother and sister-in-law who live in Sayreville part of the year, immediately headed to their designated gate as announcements that ‘a blast’ had occurred began coming over the loudspeaker. A few minutes later, everyone was forced to evacuate the airport via the airplane ramp onto the tarmac.
”We had to evacuate without any of our bags,” she said.
Shortly after security and airport personnel began throwing carryon items out of the airport as well. “They were unsure if any of them contained an explosive device. People were rushing and tripping over bags and one another,” she said, adding that once outside, buses arrived to transport people away from the building and out onto the runway. “Anybody who was in the airport was evacuated, even those who may have been their to pick someone up.”
It was just after 3 a.m. in New Jersey when Patel, who thankfully still had her purse with cellphone and passport on her, called home to South Plainfield to tell her son Dharam what was happening. “No news outlets had anything yet and they just said a blast to me on the phone and that could meant anything. It could have been a pipe that burst,” Dharam said.
Logging onto to Twitter, Dharam began searching ‘#brusselsairport’ and learned it had been a bomb and, within minutes, news confirming a terrorist attack filled social media. He called his mother back and told her what he had found out, but soon after, all communication – including calls and texts – was cut off.
“Something happened with the network there. Nothing was going through from here and they weren’t able to call here,” Dharam said.
Despite not being able to get through, Dharam – thousands of miles away at home in South Plainfield – was able to stay informed about what was going on and where his family was through Twitter. “Someone was able to get communication through and by following the Tweets I was able to find out where the passengers were,” he said. “Without social media we would have had no idea.”
Through Twitter, Dharam learned that his family, and close to 5,000 other people, had spent the next four hours standing outside on the runaway. It was just 32-degree Fahrenheit and all Patel had to keep her warm was a light zip-up sweatshirt she planned to wear on the plane.
Around 12 p.m. Belgium time buses arrived and transported everyone from the runway to an empty airplane hanger under military watch. No one was allowed in or out and, according to Patel, there was no heat. People were given airplane blankets to stay warm as well as boxes of cold airline food and a cardboard box to sit on.
At the hanger, Brussels military confirmed what Dharam had already told his mother; that the blast had indeed been a terrorist attack and that, in addition to two bombs at the airport, a third had detonated in the country’s Maalbeek metro station.
Patel, her family and most of the other stranded passengers – who ranged in age from infants to seniors and came from all ethnic backgrounds – spent close to six hours in the hanger. Around nightfall, buses and a military escort arrived and they were relocated to a Red Cross shelter set up in a warehouse some 22 miles away from the airport.
The warehouse, said Patel, was similar to the Expo Center in Edison. There were cots set up for people to sleep and food, although minimal still, was brought in along with medical assistance for those in need. Patel, who had packed her high blood pressure and cholesterol medication in her purse, did not require medical assistance at this time but her brother, a diabetic, did; while he had insulin, the syringes were in the carryon bag he was forced to leave behind. Patel, however, had swollen feet from standing so long and, over the course of the night, started running a fever and experiencing stomach problems.
“The Red Cross volunteers were great and very helpful,” she said. “I had taken my shoes off. My feet were so swollen and I wasn’t feeling well. Volunteers would bring me water.”
The following day, Jet Airways arranged for its passengers to be transported to various hotels in Amsterdam, with a military escort out of Brussels and into the Netherlands. Although the accommodations at the hotel were a much better option than the warehouse, the passengers still didn't have a change of clothes or any personal items. Additionally, Patel said, the hotel was not ready to handle so many unexpected guests when it came to food and supplies.
“They weren’t anticipating this many people and weren’t prepared. They didn't have enough food or the staff and services,” she said.
Patel and close to 600 other passengers spent two nights at the hotel as representatives for the airline worked to assist those in need of medication, documentation and flights home. Patel and her family had their passports – they were in Patel’s purse at the time they evacuated the airport – many weren’t as lucky in that their identification had been in their carryon bags.
“The airline had a manifest and were the only ones vouching for them and who they were,” she said.
On March 24, Patel and her family were offered the opportunity to fly home on Jet Airways via Toronto airport but when no one could provide information on how long they would have to be in Canada before they could get a flight back to New Jersey, Dharam once again turned to Twitter for answers.
“They were getting communication from all these people at the hotel but the information from the people on the ground was all over the place,” said Dharam, adding that he found detailed return flight information on Twitter that had been posted by Jet Airways. “I messaged them to stay there and not go to Toronto. I was able to tell them a flight was already scheduled for them the following day.”
On March 25, Patel and her family boarded a Delta Airlines flight into New York’s JFK Airport. From there, buses transported them to Newark Airport. Dharam was there waiting to bring her home.
It’s been a little over two weeks since Patel, her brother and her sister-in-law arrived home and, as of press time, only three of their nine bags of luggage has made it back. “There were over 200 passengers on the flight and so far, only 12 bags have returned, including one that belongs to my mother,” said Dharam, who went to pick the bag up the lone piece of returned luggage from Newark Airport last week.
“The checked bags will come when they do come but the Brussels Airport basically told us we will not be getting our carry on items,” he said.
In the meantime, Dharam continues to call Mumbai airport twice a day, every day to inquire about the luggage, which last he learned had been placed on a plane to London.
For Patel, the whole experience was ‘stressful’ but she feels both the Belgium and Amsterdam governments, along with the airline, handled things quite well given the circumstances. She isn’t worried about her missing luggage, which contained mostly American clothing and ‘way to many’ saris she purchased during her trip.
Instead she is just happy to be home safe and back with her family and said she has no plans to go back to India – let alone get on a plane – anytime soon. “I don’t think I will be going anywhere. I am good right here,” she said. “ I am happy that I am in my own home with my family in South Plainfield. This experience has shown me the worst of humanity and the best of humanity.
Patel added, “Condolences to the families who lost loved ones or were injured, And, many thanks to the Brussels Airport, Amsterdam Airport, Red Cross, and Jet Airways staff. We were the lucky ones…”
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