It’s Good Friday, halfway down a lake-bound road with new neighborhoods spread to either side. It’s an overcast morning. Robins and wrens serenade from old, blooming trees. Peaceful seems an understatement.
Through the front-door window come television images suggesting the rest of the world isn’t always so inclined. Belgium coverage, updates on terrorist attacks at an airport and train station half a world away but only three days prior. Bob and Martine Georges watch them like an old home video. Where were we? What were we doing then?
“What we really want is to find out what happened,” Bob said.
Inside the airport
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The couple and their 9-month-old son, Vincent, waited in a departure check-in line March 22 when a bomb went off at Brussels Airport. The family was returning from visiting Martine’s family in Antwerp, celebrating her and her father’s birthday with a six-day stay. Bob and Martine still aren’t sure how close that bomb was.
“According to CNN, it was the row over from us,” Bob said.
News footage broadcast worldwide, including home at Lake Wylie where the family moved almost three years ago, showed them in the aftermath. Bob yelled for them to get down. He covered his son as luggage, a cart and service counter, made a makeshift barrier. The family waited for gunfire that never came.
“I was telling her, I think they’re going to start shooting,” Bob said.
Instead, a second blast came from what seemed like much closer than the first. Doors and glass shattered. The baby cried. The family lay covered in dust and smelling gunpowder.
“What now?” Martine recalls thinking. “Is there a third one?”
Only days later did the family learn there was a larger bomb that never detonated. One Martine said would have been far worse than the first two. In the moment they only knew to escape.
Disoriented, the couple ran in opposite directions. Bob ran toward daylight. Martine toward the initial blast site, where she saw “parts of people and dead bodies.” Authorities ushered survivors into groups outside, which Bob saw as another possible target.
Instead the family found a parking deck, went down several levels and found a VIP lot where a French woman was arriving without knowledge of the attacks. That woman drove them the 45-minute route to Antwerp and a waiting family.
After showering and washing residue from their clothes, Martine’s mother drove them what should have been a three- to four-hour trip to Frankfurt, Germany. It took seven. There were checkpoints and closed borders. From Frankfurt they took direct flight to Charlotte.
Echoes of blasts
Back home, the Bob and Martine continue to process what happened. They think of victims who lost lives. They wonder why they didn’t see more security before the attacks, given recent incidents in Belgium, France and throughout Europe. They recall the initial sense of a bomb exploding near them.
“There’s a movement of air that comes across, that you feel,” Bob said.
Some bombing or shooting survivors report uncertainty at first, not initially processing the severity of the situation. Bob didn’t have that experience.
“It wasn’t a few minutes,” he said. “I turned around and said that’s a bomb.”
A Pennsylvania native, Bob served in the Air Force reserves. During an active duty year in Belgium, he worked as a liaison officer to NATO, and when he met Martine.
“She was my Realtor,” Bob said. “I needed an apartment.”
The military experience has Bob on constant lookout for nearest exits and suspicious surroundings whenever he travels, something he hopes people take away from the attacks in Belgium. The family wasn’t prepared for the first blast. For the second, they were.
“We were down on the floor for the second one,” Martine said.
Martine still hears the “strange echo” after the blasts. Bob describes them as someone taking the loudest firework imaginable, putting it in a trash can and setting it off right beside someone.
It is a sound the couple hopes they never hear again. Before they were out of the airport Martine was on the phone with her mother and children in Belgium — Vincent is their youngest, the sixth child between them — while Bob texted children back home still asleep at 3 a.m. their time. The family was fine. Shaken, but fine.
With a residency, family and a lifein Belgium, Martine has reason to travel there every few months. Bob’s job with American Airlines makes it possible. Despite what happened, they will return. Hopefully, they say, under far more peaceful circumstances.
“We’re not going to be going back to Brussels anytime soon,” Bob said.
Reaction at home
Monique Boekhout of Lake Wylie is a native of Belgium with dual citizenship. She’s lived in the United States since 1986.
“The U.S. is my home now, but my heart still aches for my friends in Belgium,” she said.
Boekhout saw the news of the attack early in the morning on the Internet, and turned on the television.
“It breaks my heart,” she said. “I was devastated.”
While she doesn’t have family in Brussels, she does have friends there.
“I heard from them and they are fine,” she said. “Belgium is a lovely country and the people are friendly. Even if it’s not your hometown, it hits you.”
Boekhout said the open borders, while a great idea, can pose problems.
“It’s not a bad idea, but in the case of Europe the situation is a little more complicated,” she said.
Of Belgians she said, “But they are very resilient. If you stop doing what you do, then you give in and let them win.”
John Marks: 803-831-8166
Pilot editor Catherine Muccigrosso contributed.