Northern Ireland

Brussels explosions: Eyewitnesses describe blast 'chaos'

The whole metro system has been closed following a blast at Maelbeek station
Image caption The whole metro system has been closed following a blast at Maelbeek station

An Irish man caught up in the chaos in Brussels after explosions in the city has spoken of the sense of panic among commuters.

Two blasts tore through the departures area of Zaventem airport shortly after 08:00 local time (07:00 GMT).

An hour later, an explosion hit Maalbeek metro station, close to the EU institutions.

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Media captionA group of Ballymena teenagers told of how they had just arrived at Zaventem airport in Brussels when the first explosion happened

Ian McCafferty was at a station just one stop before Maalbeek when the blast went off.

He said he could feel the impact from the short distance away.

"There was a loud muffled thud and initial panic set in."

Mr McCafferty said dust and smoke rose almost immediately across the metro station.

"The initial explosion would have lifted a lot of dust all the way through the tunnels.

"The soldiers that are always on hand these days were very quick to evacuate the area. That's when people started running from the scene, there were a lot of people crying, just a lot of confusion."

A group of young people, mostly from towns around the north east of Northern Ireland, arrived at the airport to catch their flight home at the time of the explosion, but they escaped uninjured.

The group, which was on an Education Authority trip, was moved to a safe area, where direct contact was made with the authority and their parents.

The authority said it is "in constant contact with the officers accompanying the young people" and that it is "satisfied that they are safe and well".

The group are expected to return home on Tuesday tonight.

Downpatrick man Barry Magee, who lives in Brussels, told BBC Newsline he travels to and from work through Maalbeek metro station twice a day.

"Normally around nine o'clock in the morning is when I'm passing through the station, so I feel a real sense of relief that I made the right decision not to go to work today," he said.

Image caption Downpatrick man Barry Magee told BBC Newsline he travels to and from work through Maalbeek metro station twice a day

Luke Mac an Bháird, a University College Galway student on an Erasmus year in Belgium, was waiting for a flight to Dublin at Zaventemat airport when staff announced that a bomb attack was imminent.

"I was at my gate listening to music on my headphones when officials said there was a bomb about to go off," he said.

Panic

"It was crazy...pure panic. There were a lot of people with kids. There was a lot of crying, a lot of shouting, a lot of screaming."

"People were trying to get over one another to get out of a very narrow tunnel, so it was quite intense there," he said.

"I didn't know if there was a bomb literally directly where I was, or what was going on. Some people were confused. Others were shouting."

Bangor man Nathan Magee was in his office at the European Parliament when the explosion happened at the nearby metro station.

He said he heard the explosion "faintly, as it was on the actual metro, which is underground. I think people expected something, but after the airport the explosion on the metro is a big shock.

"At nine o'clock people were getting to work and bringing children to school. The children have been advised to stay in school as we cannot get our cars out of the parliament," he said.

Image caption Bangor man Nathan Magee was in his office at the European Parliament when the explosion happened at the nearby metro station

Several MEPs were also in the parliament at the time of the blasts and described a sense of shock and confusion in the city.

Sinn Féin's Matt Carthy said a party delegation was flying to the city for an event relating to the 1916 Easter Rising at the time. Their plane was diverted.

"There's still a lot of confusion," he said.

"Our first concern was to make sure our own staff were safe.

"Most of them had made it to the parliament by the time the news filtered through.

"We had 120 visitors arriving from all over Ireland, including 88 who were in a flight above Brussels when the first explosions went off.

"They've been diverted to Amsterdam and as far as we're aware everybody is safe."

Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson, who was also in the parliament at the time of the blasts, said they were designed for maximum destruction.

"The time these went off was when everyone was heading to work," he said.

"Everywhere in the centre of town is being evacuated, we just don't know where they're going to hit next."

Image caption Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson was also in the European Parliament at the time of the attacks

Mr Nicholson passed the Maelbeek metro station shortly before the explosion occurred.

"Parliament is more or less closed down at the moment.

"I can't put [into] words what has happened."

He said he noticed heightened security when he was travelling into the city from the airport on Monday night.

DUP MEP Diane Dodds, who is also in Brussels, tweeted: "Real sense of shock and fear here in Brussels. City in lockdown. Thoughts/prayers with those caught up in these senseless acts of terrorism."

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Mrs Dodds told the BBC's Stephen Nolan Show: "It is an absolutely tragic day for people in Brussels and an absolutely senseless, awful act of terrorism."

She added: "This morning, I was actually just preparing to come up to the parliament when my staff rang to say there had been explosions at the airport.

"It seemed to be these explosions are in the departures lounge, a place I walk through on a weekly basis and then, just after I had come into parliament preparing for normal committees, there were explosions just beside the parliament at the Metro station."

The Republic of Ireland's Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Enda Kenny, tweeted: "Once again Europe is under attack.

"We stand with Belgium. Those using death and violence must and will be defeated.

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The Dáil (Irish Parliament) held a minute's silence to mark the tragedy.

All flights at Zaventem airport are cancelled.

Dublin Airport said passengers intending to travel to the city on Tuesday should contact their airline for latest flight information.

The UK Foreign Office tweeted a link to their advice for those intending to travel to Brussels.

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The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs has said people with concerns for Irish citizens can call +353 01 408 2000.

It said that any Irish citizens in Brussels or Belgium should exercise caution and follow the instructions of local authorities.

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