Indian flight attendant who survived 2016 Brussels terror attack recounts ordeal

An excerpt from ‘Unbroken: The Brussels Terror Attack Survivor’, authored by Nidhi Chaphekar, the former Jet Airways cabin crew member in the viral photo.
Indian flight attendant who survived 2016 Brussels terror attack recounts ordeal
Indian flight attendant who survived 2016 Brussels terror attack recounts ordeal
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[...] I had started feeling drowsy, and the pain had begun to intensify. I still couldn’t feel the lower parts of my legs. I was now sure I had damaged my nerves, and was also worried about the blood flow. So I asked the ground staff member whether he could place my legs in an upward angle. I don’t know what he used, but my legs were soon in a raised position. 

While he was attending to me, we heard a shout from outside. I couldn’t understand what it was, but it was repeated. The ground staff who was with us immediately ran to pull down the shutter. Then he lay down on the floor. I kept asking what had happened. He said, ‘Sshh…’ and just lay flat and still on the ground. I thought maybe some of the terrorists were roaming around with guns. My breathing became faster, but through my fear, I started chanting ‘Jai Mata Di’.

My eyes were closed and I was praying to God to give strength to my kids and family, even as I wondered who among us in the room would take the first bullet. As there were around five or six of us in there and my stretcher was the farthest from the door, I was sure I’d get hit first as the bullets would most likely be shot in a downward slanting angle. I prayed that even if I lose my life, this child should live as he would not have seen the beauty of this world. 

After about ten to fifteen minutes, another loud, and this time, very clear voice was heard. It seemed as if the person was standing right outside the door. I made my last wish—that my kids live a healthy and lovely life even if I am unable to be with them. But then I heard a reply from the ground staff member who was inside with us. He got up and opened the shutter. I asked him in my feeble voice if everything was okay, and he replied with a simple ‘yes’. I asked him why he had closed the shutter and lain down. He replied that another bomb had been found, so we were asked to take safe positions and lie down on the floor to minimise the impact.

Later, we came to know that this bomb had been kept very close to the Jet Airways check-in counter and was of such massive strength that had it exploded, the whole airport would have been demolished. He added that everything was under control now as the special-forces commandos had arrived, and so had the paramedics to provide first aid.

I noticed one of the paramedical personnel entering the room. He checked my vitals, assessed my condition and tagged me. There was another lady on the first stretcher, screaming and holding the paramedic tightly. [...] 

I thought to myself, now in no time the ambulance will arrive as they had tagged us. I would get the best treatment soon and I would be fine. But my eyes were closing again even though I didn’t want them to. Then I saw another team of paramedics arrive and they appeared to be heading straight towards me. One of them said, ‘We are from the paramedics team. Don’t worry, we are here to give you first aid.’ 


Almost two hours had gone by after the blast, and by now, I was totally zombie-like. I was left with no energy and feeling very sleepy. I knew it would be dangerous if I slept, so I kept on asking the ground staff member questions. When would they take me out of there? What was the time? When would we reach the hospital? The lady who was screaming throughout was taken away sometime earlier, I believe, to the hospital. 


One of the paramedics came close to me and said, ‘Some more time. It’s on the way, just some more time.’ I started thinking of my kids, my son Vardaan, fourteen years old, and my daughter Vriddhi, ten years old. I believe my eyes closed for a while, and in my dreams I was talking to them, feeling sorry that I didn’t kiss them while leaving for the flight. I was telling them to be brave. That their mom would be fine soon and would join them. 

I opened my eyes when I heard someone shout in French, words that I believe meant—lift her up. [...] 

On the right side was a police officer. At that moment, for the first time, I felt like I was losing strength and called out very loudly—‘Someone please help! Please take me to the hospital.’ Then I looked at the police officer. He came near me. My eyes filled with tears. I expressed that I was losing strength and consciousness, and he should help me. I wanted to live for my children. He calmed me down. He told me that ambulances were on the way and would only take five more minutes. My eyes were burning, waiting to see the ambulance. He kept talking to me to keep me awake. [...]

Meanwhile, the ambulance arrived and my stretcher was lifted and placed inside. The ambulance worker could speak fluent English. [...]

By now my mouth felt very dry and my lips were not opening; at some point, I guess he too thought I wouldn’t make it. I told him, don’t let me sleep. He said he wouldn’t. Whenever he saw my eyes closing, he would shout, ‘Ma’am, wake up! We are almost there.’ Finally, I asked him how much longer it would take as I couldn’t bear the pain anymore. He said, ‘Just ten more minutes.’


When we reached Sint-Augustinus Hospital, Antwerp, my stretcher was quickly moved into a lift. I was taken to a room where nurses and doctors were already present. 


Just looking at the medical team gave me the confidence that I would be saved. I knew it was very important to give correct information to the team. I told them that my legs were aching, and that they had become very heavy. I couldn’t feel them at all. They asked me to lift my leg, but I failed. As I was wearing diamond bangles, the doctors asked me if I could remove them or if they should cut them. By that time my hands were swollen and had become rotten at the top. Not realising this, I pulled out the bangles.

And that’s when I felt for the first time immense pain in my hands as the skin there peeled off completely. My teeth clenched in pain, and my eyes rolled up. The pain was unimaginable. The doctor said, ‘Don’t remove the rings. We will cut them off.’ He himself hadn’t realised the consequences of removing the bangles (earlier they had assumed that I was dark-skinned but later realised that the dark skin was actually burnt skin on all the exposed parts of my body). A man cut open both my rings and chain, and my earrings and navel stud were removed. The nurse took a small plastic box and a bag to put all the things in. 


I gave them my husband’s number and asked them to give a call and tell him that I was fine. I told them that I was an employee of Jet Airways, but I didn’t know who would come to see me here.

[...] The nurse cut my clothes that were now hanging in shreds and said they would remove the rest in the operation theatre. Before they could take me anywhere, I asked them two questions. ‘I can’t feel my legs. I know they are badly wounded. Will you amputate them?’

The nurse had no answer. 

Then I asked, ‘Is my face totally burnt?’ I had by then seen what had happened to my hands. The nurse replied simply, ‘Yes.’

Instantly, I told him that I didn’t want to live. Let me die. My mind began to get flooded with negative thoughts and fears. How would I face the world if my face was burnt? What would people think of me? How would my kids and family feel? How would I continue my job? I am an airhostess and the thing we most value in our service is being presentable—we must look beautiful! My company may ask me to leave. How would I run my home then? People would pity me and I would be a burden on my family.

But the nurse, Marc Hermans, consoled me gently, ‘Don’t worry, you will be fine soon.’

I was numb by then. They took me to the CT scan room. They asked me not to move. They strapped me down and asked me not to worry. I felt brain-dead. There was no reaction from me to anything they said. They informed me that they were going to do a full-body CT scan and it would take a few minutes. ‘Do not get scared, we all are here,’ they assured me. I didn’t move and just lay still. But I was still complaining of my legs feeling very heavy; it was extremely painful. After that, they took me to the operation theatre.

Exerpted with permission from 'Unbroken: The Brussels Terror Attack Survivor' by Nidhi Chaphekar, published by Amaryllis. The book retails for Rs 599.

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