“Help there is a bomb in Arts-Loi,” she texted her sister, Nathalie Bay, 29.
But the bomb had gone off not in Arts-Loi. It had gone off just six blocks away at the Maelbeek station closer to the French Embassy. The dust caked across Virginie’s head was testament to the force of the explosion.
The Bay sisters told their story to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in their city. Nathalie translated for her sister, Virginie, who speaks French. The Bays have relatives in Atlanta.
They were among those with ties to Atlanta snared in the violence. Some expressed resignation that the bombings - coming on the heels of deadly terrorist assaults in Paris - marked a new normal in Europe. Others were defiant.
Virginie said she raced back up the stairs to the street. As she ascended, “military” officers were descending, yelling for everyone to get out of the station as quickly as possible, but “not to run.” Once Bay got away from the station, Nathalie was calling.
“She was crying,” Nathalie said. “I told her to catch a cab and get to my house as fast as she could, but there were no cabs. I told her to keep moving and to stay away from the American Embassy and the French Embassy because they are right there and we didn’t know what was going to happen. I told her to stay away from tunnels and big buildings. You never know if it was a simultaneous attack or not. It was chaos.”
Once Virginie arrived, the sisters tried to stay calm as evening fell in a city frozen with fear and uncertainty.
“She was able to take a nap after a while, but I can tell she was frightened,” Nathalie said. “Physically, she is fine. Psychologically, she is shaken.”
A loud bang, then Brussels comes to a halt
Stephane Mertens heard a loud bang outside his home Tuesday morning. He wasn’t sure where it came from. He saw two emergency vehicles race by. Then came the radio reports about the terrorist bombings in the airport and the subway station, the one Mertens sometimes passes through. It’s just a five-minute walk from his home.
A retired translator for the Belgium Parliament whose brother lives in Atlanta, Mertens considered his own mortality as he described what he was seeing to the AJC. A police helicopter was hovering overhead, he said, and people were still trapped in the subway nearby. Troops were deploying across the city.
“It’s very sad news but I am afraid it is the not the last time,” Mertens said glumly. “Brussels won’t be the only city in Europe where this is going to happen.”
The authorities, he said, asked people to stay indoors in Belgium as they responded to the attacks.
“Brussels is a dead city right now,” he said. “No traffic at all. No public transportation. No trains. No buses. No taxis. Nothing. Brussels Airport is closed.”
Mertens didn’t think the timing of the attacks was a coincidence, coming just days after Parks attack suspect Salah Abdeslam was arrested in a dramatic raid in Brussels.
“Some people say it is a revenge action for what the police did,” Mertens said.
“It is not the first time,” he continued. “Remember Paris? Remember Madrid? Next time it could be Amsterdam or Berlin. I guess that ISIS is trying to hit all European countries participating in the actions in Syria and Iraq.”
‘I guess nowhere is safe’
Mertens’ younger brother, Anton, is an immigration attorney based in Atlanta and the chairman of the Brussels Sister City Committee for Atlanta’s Sister Cities Commission. Anton — who grew up in Brussels, got his law degree at Mercer University and is now a U.S. citizen – said he learned of the attacks watching the televised news Tuesday morning. He was in Puerto Rico, celebrating his wife’s birthda
“My wife and kids and I are supposed to go in July. We postponed a trip from Christmas because of what happened before in Paris (during the Nov. 13 terrorist massacre.) And now it is happening in Brussels,” he said. “I guess nowhere is safe.”
‘We’re in shock right now’
The kids knew something was wrong. Brandon Bizzell sat them down to explain: terrorists had struck at the airport and train station. The children, 9 and 11, nodded.
Still, said Bizzell, a former Gwinnett County deputy now living outside Brussels, “it was a tough conversation to have.” He’s angry that he had to.
Bizzell, who left Gwinnett nearly four years ago, lives in Waterloo, not far from the site where the Emperor Napoleon met with defeat in 1815. It was a career move: his wife got a job promotion too good to pass up. They’ve enjoyed life overseas.
Now, said Bizzell, the bombings have taken some of the luster off their expatriate lives.
“I’m sad – sad and angry at the same time,” Bizzell said. “I don’t want to live in fear. That’s what they want.”
With the airport and trains idled, said Bizzell, Belgium waits, and wonders. “Basically, we’re in shock right now,” Bizzell said. “People are concerned about what might be coming next.”
An ominous text message
Patricia Kalmeijer, a Belgium native who now works as a realtor in Atlanta, got a text message from her husband at 4:11 a.m. Tuesday. He was away in Brussels on business and wanted to let her know he was OK.
“I am fine – my travel was scheduled for tomorrow,” he told her.
She responded: “WHAT???? I know nothing… Should I be in panic mode?”
Then she glanced at an email from a Belgian newspaper. The news of the terror bombings was there. Kalmeijer, a U.S. citizen who writes a blog for the Belgian community around Atlanta, was terrified. Her mother, mother-in-law and a brother still live in the Brussels area.
“It is kind of terrifying that Belgium is under attack like that — the fact also that our airport has been the target,” she said.
‘They are not going to keep me sitting down’
Her husband, Jan-Paul, was working about 20 minutes outside of Brussels, where he is helping European companies interested in doing business in the U.S. He was listening to the news on the radio. But details were scarce.
“It is constantly on the radio here,” said Jan-Paul, who specializes in international business development. “They give very little information on the real details — what is behind it — because they don’t want to compromise the police work that is ongoing.”
The anxiety was palpable in Brussels, he added.
“Right now, everybody is really extremely tense,” he said. “I have had a couple of business meetings today and it is the only thing people talk about. Everybody is horrified.”
“But at the same time, everybody is saying, ‘We shouldn’t stand back. We need to confront this and unite,’” he continued.
With the Brussels Airport closed, Jan-Paul was about to start figuring out how he was going to get back to Atlanta this week.
“There is no thought in my mind that I would not travel,” he said. “They are not going to keep me sitting down.”
‘It’s like a war zone here’
The phone rang before David Hull could leave for work. His partner was on the line, complaining that traffic in Brussels was heavier than usual. To make things worse: a black plume of smoke rose over the airport.
“Things went downhill from there,” Hull said.
The fire, the world learned, stemmed from a bombing attack. Then a second bomber targeted a Brussels train stop — the same stop, said Hull, adjacent to the high school where his partner's children attend classes.
For Hull, a University of Georgia law graduate who’s lived in Belgium since 1983, the bombings are a reminder that no place is safe, that terror respects no one. “
“It’s like a war zone here,” said Hull, as he prepared to leave his office. “We’ve got soldiers standing on every corner. It’s disconcerting.”