By Mark Ellis
Two American Christian friends from Alabama would have been at the check-in counter at the Brussels airport when a massive bomb exploded nearby, but were delayed a few crucial minutes by stopping for a snack on the way to the airport.
Dr. Laura Billiet, an internal medicine specialist, was dropping off her friend Laura Harper at the airport when they heard an explosion—the first of the two that rocked the airport early Tuesday.
Dr. Billiet has been living in Brussels temporarily with her family. She and Harper have been friends since elementary school in Huntsville, Alabama. Harper had come to visit Dr. Billiet because her youngest son was being baptized, according to AL.com.
They were running a few minutes late after Dr. Billiet’s brother-in-law had asked to stop for croissants on the way to the airport.
“If we had arrived one minute earlier, we would have been right inside, right where it happened,” said Harper. “(The explosion happened) at the counter I was going to. I’m just so grateful.”
The two found themselves in the midst of a nightmarish situation. “It was very surreal. It was not that loud of a sound,” Harper told ABC News. “At first I wasn’t concerned and then I thought, ‘Wait, that doesn’t make sense. Why would I hear that?’ When I turned around, I saw glass and dust billowing out. I said, ‘That was a bomb.'”
Dr. Billiet said she didn’t realize what had happened until Harper told her it was a bomb and they needed to try and drive away. But since all the other vehicles were trying to leave as well, they were stuck near the airport as the second bomb went off, showering the area nearby in glass.
“It’s another bomb!” Harper cried. “Let’s get out and run.” Harper told Charisma News that she is a Christian and prayer was her first response to the ordeal.
The two found shelter in a nearby police station. The police left immediately to see what happened, so they found themselves virtually alone in the police station as waves of injured people started to arrive, Dr. Billiet recounted.
“At first I was a complete coward, hiding under the desk,” Harper told AL.com. “I thought maybe they have guns, maybe people are going to start shooting us. We were praying.”
Dr. Billiet began to triage the wounded who staggered in. “I’m going to go help those people, ” she told her friend.
Harper was fearful and somewhat nauseated by the sight of the injuries, which included shrapnel wounds and singed hair. But she overcame her fears and both women sprang into action.
“It still felt unsafe. We kept waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Billiet recalled, saying she thought there might be a gunman or another bomb. “Then we started to see children coming in who were injured. We started working on, trying to help people and we didn’t have a lot of things to work with,” she told ABC News.
Billiet found paper towels and scissors to cut away clothing and find injuries. They located a first aid kit at the police station, but it lacked antiseptic or burn salve, she said.
“The first airport employee I saw — all her hair had been singed off on one side, she had shrapnel in her face and blood all down her shirt and her pants were soaked in blood,” Billiet told ABC. “I cut the pants off her and she had lots and lots of shrapnel wounds in her leg that were bleeding. A lot of people looked like that, some kids — that was the hardest thing to see for us.”
Dr. Billiet was touched by the number of people were thinking of others. “A lot of people said, ‘No, no, I can wait. Look at him first or look at her first,” Billiet recalled. “That was nice to see.”
“One of the people, a woman from the check-in counter, was carrying a walkie-talkie covered in flesh, and she had multiple shrapnel wounds,” said Billiet. “And we had nothing there, just paper towels.
Harper turned her attention to two young sisters, 6 and 8, who were injured and screaming after they lost their parents.
“I just looked at them and thought of my own daughters. I was singing. I tried to get them to sing with me,” Harper told ABC. “The younger one was really shaking and going into shock.”
“I think those girls needed someone with them and there wasn’t anyone available to speak their language,” Billiet said. “She really did a good service and thank God because there were so many people there that needed things and so little that we had to give them.”
Dr. Billiet worked with others to treat as many as 40 wounded people.
“It was mainly shrapnel,” she said, “but a lot of people with hearing loss, singed hair, and one woman who was pregnant. We were giving them water, and cutting off clothing to see where their wounds were.”
They could hear ambulances but no help was arriving at the police station.
“I was getting really angry (that no medical help had come),” said Harper, “so I went downstairs and out of the building, and I found a paramedic,” she told AL.com.
She described the injuries they were dealing with and asked for help. He told her “It’s so much worse inside the airport and we have to go there first.”
Shortly after that, more ambulances and medical personnel arrived and they were able to take the most seriously wounded out of the police station on stretchers.
The two women are now back in Brussels and Harper said she is looking for a flight back to the U.S. from Frankfurt. Dr. Billiet said she and her family were planning to move back to the U.S. on Easter Sunday, but are not sure now when they’ll be able to get back to the states.
They said Brussels – normally a busy city with lots of traffic – has been unusually quiet.
“It’s like 9/11,” said Harper. “It seems like the way it was on 9/11. Everybody is staying home.”