Brussels attacks: Irish witness describes ‘mass confusion’ at metro station

Heavy military presence in aftermath of fatal Maelbeek explosion: ‘People started to run’

Ian McCafferty was getting off the metro at Arts-Loi, the stop just before Maelbeek, at around 8.20am when he heard what he describes as a “loud muffled thud”.

He says there is “so much construction going on here that at first I didn’t really think much of it”.

He kept walking, heading out of the station on the way to his office near the European Commission. He looks after some of the Commission's social media content.

“I was actually on the phone to my mother,” he says. “She had called to make sure I was okay after she had heard about the airport blasts. She is very vigilant when it comes to these things.”


As he approached the station exit he noticed people around him “picking up the pace” and when the commuters got to the top of the metro station stairs “there was a large military presence and mass confusion. People started to run. Some people were crying. The two stations are only a stone’s throw apart.”

He calmly ended his call with his mother, without letting her know how close he had come to be caught up in the explosion. “We were the last train through the station before the blast,” he says .

While the city has been on edge since it was identified as a terrorist hub in the wake of the Paris attacks last November - and more particularly since the arrest of Salah Abdeslam on Friday he says it "would not be right to say there has been a sense of inevitability about the attacks. There have been constant reminders about the state of emergency and the security levels are always elevated by people just get on with their lives."

He plans to stay in his office this morning. “I can walk back to the city centre later on. It is the same distance from Mountjoy Square to College Green.

“I won’t go now as I don’t want to make more work for the security forces. I will just get on with my job.”

‘Panic on the streets’

Tara Connolly works for Greenpeace and was attending a conference in the Thon Hotel close to where the metro blast occurred. “The first thing we were told was that they were going to use the hotel to treat the injured. We were asked to stay in the conference room and not to leave the hotel,” she said. “They didn’t want more panic on the streets.”

She said: “For a while the conference continued. It was all a bit surreal. I could see the staff racing about getting the place ready for the wounded. Then after about an hour we were asked to leave.”

She has been living in Brussels for four years and was able to walk home from the hotel in 15 minutes. “The streets were almost deserted apart from a large amount of military personnel. There was a real sense of shock.”

She says that since the Paris attacks, a fear that something would happen in Brussels “is always in the back of your mind. There is always a military presence on the street and the sight of armoured cars is common. But you have to adjust.”

‘We don’t know if we are in the safest place or the most dangerous’

Vera Coughlan was on her way to work in a legal firm on Rue la Loi opposite the Belgian PM’s office and the US embassy. “The street is completely locked down,” she says. “No one can get in or get out. There are sirens blaring and motorbikes and armoured cars. We have all been told to stay off the streets. Taxis have been made free to help get people home and off the streets.”

She says there is huge confusion about what is going on. “We just heard a blast from Schuman metro station. I think it was a controlled explosion but we’re not really sure.”

She says that the people in her office are anxious to leave the building and go home. “We honestly don’t know if we are in the safest place in Brussels or the most dangerous. We are right beside the US embassy so obviously there is a lot of security there but then again it is also a major target. I just don’t know.”

As with the other Irish people living in Brussels, Coughlan has lived with the knowledge that something like this could happen for months. “There has been a stoic acceptance that a terrorist attack could happen but also a realisation that there is nothing we can do about it. It was really bad after the terrorist attacks in Paris but the fear abated quite quickly and things got back to normal. That normality is gone now.

‘Soldiers will be returning to the streets for the foreseeable future’

Ed Davitt, a 35-year-old from Dublin who has been working for an environmental NGO in Brussels for four years, woke up to news of the airport explosion this morning.

“We thought might be small, but then realised from helicopters, sirens and Twitter it was something bigger,” he said.

“One of my housemates is in the European Parliament, which is currently in lockdown but safe. Another Irish friend is working Rue de Loi and heard the explosion in Maalbeek station. Another was at the Thon hotel, which was locked in for a while but now released, and saw them bringing in injured from the station attack to be treated in the hotel conference rooms.”

Mr Davitt said he has managed to contact all his friends, and all are safe.

“We’re using WhatsApp to keep in touch, as the networks are very overloaded, and the state media is asking us to stay off them,” he said. “We are alarmed, angry and probably quite shocked. Soldiers will be returning to the streets for the foreseeable future… Things are going to get worse before they get better.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny, founding editor of Irish Times Abroad, a section for Irish-connected people around the world, is Editor of the Irish Times Magazine