‘I Couldn’t Move’: How STIB handled the Brussels Attacks aftermath
Tuesday, 23 March 2021
Credit: Dirk Waem/Belga
On 22 March, five years ago, during the terrorist attacks at Brussels International Airport and Maelbeek metro station, Brussels’ public transport company STIB was facing a challenge unlike any it had dealt with before. The company had a crisis management plan in place for communications for years, and its staff has been trained to deal with similar situations, An Van hamme, spokesperson for STIB, told The Brussels Times. “But you learn these things hoping you will never have to use that information,” she said. Van hamme first discovered the news about the explosion at Brussels International Airport in Zaventem when she herself was on the metro line that passed through Maelbeek metro station.
“By the time I arrived at work, we had to inform people that the bus serving the airport would no longer be operating because of the attacks, but the press release with this information hadn’t even gone out of the door when my boss came to tell me about the explosion in Maelbeek metro station,” Van hamme explained. “When I heard about the explosions, I was immediately transfixed and I couldn’t move, but of course, there was no time to really think about what was happening,” she added. She recalled the moment she saw the footage of the bombings on her colleague’s computer screen, and said this made her stop once more, “but again, at that moment you cannot think about it, no matter how hard it is,” she said. STIB’s crisis management plan emphasises the importance of not letting emotions take over in these situations because if employees let this happen, they wouldn’t have been able to work anymore, Van hamme explained. The company put out a confirmation that there had been an attack on the metro line and that several people were wounded, “and this is information you have to give very quickly,” said Van hamme, adding that as the events unfolded, the telephones were “ringing off the hook in the office all day.”
STIB offered a support network for employees to fall back on in case they were emotionally affected by the events, a system that is also in place to support victims of aggression by passengers, however, Van hamme herself didn’t feel she needed psychological counselling. “Of course, everybody responds to these events in a different way, and it is up to each person how they deal with these events, and although the impact on us wasn’t the same as on the victims who were directly involved, it still had a very real effect on all of us.” She explained that STIB as an organisation had previously experienced other crisis incidents, such as in 2012, when a bus driver was killed during an act of aggression on the job, but “the attacks were on a whole other level, of course,” said Van hamme. “That day was a very serious crisis and it was unlike anything that had ever happened at STIB. We went through something very heavy at the time, and it affected us at the heart of the company. But it makes you realise, you go through it together, and it really showed the enormous resilience of the staff,” she said. Van hamme emphasised that her account of the events from a communication standpoint should in no way detract from the experience of the victims themselves who were immediately involved.