Victims lay in pools of blood, their limbs blown off, as the smoke cleared to reveal scenes of horror after twin explosions ripped through the main terminal at Brussels airport, witnesses said.
The normally-bustling check-in hall at Zaventem airport was wrecked by the morning rush-hour blasts, with part of the ceiling collapsing near the airline desks and many of the huge plate-glass windows blown out.
Horst Pilger said his children thought fireworks were going off when the first explosion struck on Tuesday, but he instantly knew that Brussels Airport was under attack.
“My wife and I both thought ‘bomb’. We looked into each other’s eyes,” he said. “Five or 10 seconds later there was a major, major, major blast in close vicinity. It was massive.”
Pilger, an Austrian who works for the European Union, was planning a short family trip to Rome and, two hours before departure, was sitting at a coffee shop in the main departure hall.
“We were just halfway through the coffee and there was a boom. It was a bit distant, but fairly loud,” Pilger said by telephone from a hotel opposite the terminal building where travellers were taken by airport staff.
“Later on, the kids told me they’d thought it was fireworks,” he said. But the second blast left no doubt.
Pilger, who works at the European Commission, said the whole ceiling collapsed and smoke flooded the building.
“We were very scared,” he said.
Confined to the hotel for hours after the attacks, with a bomb later exploding at a Brussels metro station, Pilger said he was also present when there was a subsequent blast, probably a controlled explosion by security services.
“Around 2 o’clock, we were told to go to the back of the building now. So obviously they knew there was some sort of explosion going to happen...That explosion really destroyed the terminal building more than the previous one had.”
Alphonse Youla, 40, who works at the airport, said he heard a man shouting out in Arabic before the first explosion. “Then the glass ceiling of the airport collapsed.”
“I helped carry out five people dead, their legs destroyed,” he said, his hands covered in blood.
Video showed devastation in the hall with ceiling tiles and glass scattered across the floor. Some passengers emerged from the terminal with blood spattered over their clothes.
Smoke rose from the building through shattered windows and passengers fled down a slipway, some still hauling their bags.
Shortly afterwards, another explosion ripped through a train at Maalbeek metro station. The coordinated strikes by the Islamic State killed more than 30 people and injured over 250.
The city was already on high alert following Friday’s arrest of Salah Abdeslam, a key suspect in the November attacks on Paris that killed 130 and were claimed by the West Asian terror group.
Many of the dead and wounded at the airport were badly injured in the legs, one airport worker said, suggesting at least one bomb in a bag on the floor.
A local journalist tweeted a photograph of a person lying covered in blood among smoke outside Maelbeek metro station, on the main Rue de la Loi avenue which connects central Brussels with the European Union institutions.
The blast hit the train as it left Maelbeek station heading to the city centre. Ambulances were ferrying the wounded away and sirens rang out across the area.
Brussels-based Briton Julian Firkins, 44, was in the departure terminal with his partner close to where the first bomb went off.
“We had been waiting in line when I decided to get a tea. Literally five seconds after I left, the first bomb went off right next to us,” Firkins said.
He ran back to his girlfriend just as the second blast rocked the hall, wreaking further carnage which they miraculously escaped.
Michel Mpoy, 65, who was at the airport to pick up a friend arriving from Kinshasa, said it was “a total mess -- it was terrible”.
Another person waiting at the airport was Jean-Pierre Herman who had just met his wife off a flight from Thailand.
“I said ‘hello,’ we took the elevator and in the elevator we heard the first bomb,” he said.
“The second exploded just when we got off. We ran away to an emergency exit. I think we are very lucky.”
Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, a British journalist living in Brussels, said there was “total confusion” at the airport, where she was having breakfast before a flight.
“Suddenly staff rushed in and said we have to leave,” she said. “Nobody knew what was going on.
“It was total confusion, people were just standing around wondering what was happening.”
In the city, AFP journalist Lachlan Carmichael was on the metro when his train was halted in the tunnel after he and the other passengers felt a shock wave from the explosion a hundred or so metres down the line at Maalbeek.
Train staff said there was an explosion ahead and evacuated the train as it began filling up with smoke. Passengers got out onto the tracks whose power lines had been switched off.
Another AFP journalist, Cedric Simon, said saw clouds of smoke and dust coming out of Maalbeek station and about 15 people lying by the road, many with bloodied faces who were being treated by medical staff.
The Thon Hotel opposite the station was turned into a makeshift hospital with medics treating about 40 wounded people, general manager Hans Van der Biesen said.
“I saw one person with his leg completely ripped apart. Then there was another person whose head was completely bloody,” said Maya Halaoui, a Belgian woman of Lebanese origin who was in a business meeting at the hotel.
The streets were filled with police cars and emergency vehicles, sirens wailing and blue lights flashing.
Brussels has been on high alert since January 2015 when jihadists stormed the Paris offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly and a Jewish supermarket, killing 17, with heavily-armed police and then troops deployed on the streets.
Security was further hiked after the November attacks on the French capital that were hatched by jihadists in Brussels.