Twenty minutes made the difference between life and death for Christian Kremer on Tuesday morning.
The Belgian politician checked into a flight bound for Israel aboard Brussels Airlines at 7:40 a.m. at the same set of checkout counters where two explosions occurred just 20 minutes later, killing 14 people. A bomb in a major metro station a short time later left another 20 people dead.
A terror attack was the last thing on Kremer’s mind as he left his home in a taxi at 7 a.m. He did so earlier than usual because of security requirements for his flight to Ben Gurion International Airport. Had he been heading to another European city, he would have checked in at around 8 a.m.
"In the end 20 minutes is not a terrible lot of time," he told The Jerusalem Post
in a telephone interview later that day in which he speculated about how easily he could have been delayed.
“I could have been stuck in a traffic jam,” he said.
“It was good luck for me that on this particular morning I had a flight to Israel and not to some other place in Europe. Contrary to my habit I left rather early because I thought there would be additional security measures to fly to Israel,” Kremer said.
He even had time to smoke a cigarette outside and take a selfie of himself.
“Everything was perfectly normal. It was starting to get crowded, but not unusually crowded," he recalled. He passed easily through security, passport control and into the business lounge. He did not hear the explosion as he helped himself to coffee, two cheese croissants and an orange juice.
But he noted that people were suddenly leaving the room. He imagined that a bomb scare of sorts had occurred. So he dropped his food and grabbed a bottle of water instead before joining the other travelers. It was only when he checked a news site on his smart phone that he understood what happened. Announcements came over the loudspeakers that stated: “evacuation, evacuation,” he recalled.
There was a false moment of panic as they were herded out of the building and onto the runway area. Some people began to run because they feared another attack had occurred, he said. From the runway they were bused to a cargo area on the airport grounds and held for close to three hours before they were allowed to leave.
People were walking out of the airport by the thousands, Kremer said. His luck for the day continued to hold, however, and somehow he found one of the few available taxis that took him home.
(Photo: Passengers leaving Brussels airport terminal after terror attack, March 22, 2016, Credit: Christian Kremer)
The impacts of the attacks were felt throughout the city, said Kremer who is the Deputy Secretary General of the European People's Party. “People were told to stay inside and not to leave their houses. Public transportation was closed down. He felt it less in his home just outside the city, he said.
United Hatzalah volunteer EMT Yaakov Yeret was praying at the Brussels airport synagogue when a bomb went off. He was on his way from New York back home to Israel.
“We felt the explosion,” he said and explained that he understood immediately that it was a terror attack because he has been responding to such incident for 11 years. “We exited the synagogue in order to see what was happening and we joined the stream of people who were being ushered by the police to exit the terminal,” he said.
After he left the airport he made his way to Antwerp from where he is hoping to catch a flight to Israel.
The vicious attacks in the troubled European capital plugged up travel, both in the city, where the metro had been hit by a bomb, and internationally.
“People left the airport but couldn’t take a train back to their hotel,” said Mark Feldman, who runs travel agency Zion Tours.
Flights between Belgium and Israel were canceled for the rest of Tuesday and for all of Wednesday, according to a spokesman for the Israel Airport Authority.
Initially following the attack, security officials said all flights coming to Israel from Europe would not be allowed to land until midnight. However, it was later decided that flights would be able to continue throughout the day, but with delays.
Miri Friedman, a 23-year-old senior at Ariel University, was in Brussels for a model EU competition when the attacks happened.
“We were supposed to be at a conference today, but unfortunately we couldn’t leave the hotel by order of the Israeli embassy,” she said.
Though she was confident flights would be back to normal by the time they planned to return to Israel on Sunday, she said getting around in the interim was a problem. The metro station that was attacked was the one the group was headed toward for their conference.
“We do not want to take the metro. We don’t want to take any chances.
And when it comes to walking around, we’ll listen to the instructions from the embassy,” she said, heaping praise on the embassy for their quick and efficient reaction to the attack.
Nicky, an Israel-based employee at Innodata who asked that her last name not be used, was supposed to fly to Brussels for a work meeting Tuesday.
“My plans for today have drastically changed, and of course I’m very concerned for everyone in Belgium,” she said. Regarding her business meetings, she added, “My suitcase is here, ready to go. I just have to wait and see.”
Feldman noted that the closures were causing problems for many Israelis who were in Washington, DC for the AIPAC Policy Conference, and were supposed to fly back via Europe, though the reinstatement of flights from most European capitals should ease that pressure.
The Israel Airports Authority advised travelers to check with the individual airlines to determine the status of their flights. Though the attacks raised concern about airport safety, Nicky said she would be ready to get on the next flight as soon as it was available.
“If they reopen the airport, I’m confident they’ll do it with a lot of security,” she said.