Local families share near-miss stories from Brussels attacks

By Jim Piggott - Reporter, Dana Levy - Producer

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Three explosions that ripped through the Belgian capital of Brussels on Tuesday killed more than 30 people and wounded more than 230 others.

After the blasts -- which came days after the capture of Europe's most wanted man, Salah Abdeslam, in a bloody police raid -- Belgian authorities again hit the streets looking for those tied to Tuesday's carnage and who might launch more attacks. 

Amir Hajek, who lives in St. Augustine, told News4Jax that his father works as a European delegate and his parents left the Brussels airport just 10 minutes before the explosions rang out.

"I called them, tried calling them, and they wouldn't answer, and then I finally called them and my father was in the hotel right next to the apartment building in downtown Brussels," Hajek said. "He couldn't believe it. Europe is under attack."

Authorities said at least one of the two airport explosions was a suicide bombing. One blast happened outside the security checkpoints for ticketed passengers. Another happened near the airline check-in counters, an airline official briefed on the situation said.

Hajek said his parents, who are both safe, told him at the time of the attacks, the scene was chaotic.

"He's saying there is police, there are sirens going on everywhere. Apparently, for a few months, there have been military down on the streets. It's pretty serious," Hajek said.

The subway station blast happened in the Brussels district of Maalbeek, near the European quarter, where much of the European Union is based.

Jacksonville resident Connie Edenfield, who moved to Florida from Belgium 11 years ago, said her friend who still lives there was very lucky Tuesday.

Gov. Rick Scott and President Barak Obama ordered flags be flown at half-staff to honor the Brussels terror victims.

“My best friend, she takes that Metro, and she was a half an hour late this morning, and that saved her life,” Edenfield said.

She has two nephews who work in the area.

“He had the day off. The other one works near, but he's OK. All of the family is OK, but I'm still waiting to hear from some friends,” Edenfield said.

Edenfield and her son, Nick Feyaerts, who was 16 years old when they emigrated from Belgium, were awakened early Tuesday by phone calls and text messages from loved ones in Brussels.

“I checked all my emails (this morning), and talk to my grandma, because she lives very close to the airport. She is fine,” Feyaerts said.

Edenfield said she goes back to Brussels occasionally and had been planning a trip in April that she's now nervous about.

Resources in Brussels tragedy
There are several ways you can check on the safety of loved ones in Brussels:
  • The Belgian Red Cross set up a website that allows people to search for family and friends in Brussels and also for those in Brussels to check in if they're OK.
  • The Belgian Crisis Center established a phone number that people outside of Belgium may call for information: +3278151771.
  • To check on loved ones at the Brussels Airport, call (0032) (0)2/753 73 00.
  • Facebook activated its safety check feature, which allows people in Brussels to check in on the social media website and let people know they are alive and well.

San Marco resident Chantal Decoster also has a return trip to her home country planned. She was going to head back to Brussels this weekend.

“I am living still in Belgium, and for me it is a concern, because I need to go back in a few days, and I'm a little bit frightened,” Decoster said.

Decoster and her husband recently opened The Chocolate Store, a barista and chocolate shop in Jacksonville.

She said she was shocked when she heard the news of the attacks.

“I was terrified. I was really nervous. The first thing I wanted to do was talk to my family, my friends to see if everything was OK,” Decoster said. “Of course, everybody's scared. Me too, because we live in a country that is very open. We have international cultures that are living together. When something like this happens, you can't imagine.”

Decoster had a message that other Belgian nationals echoed Tuesday.

“The country is still safe,” she said. “And I can only say to all of the people that my travel to Europe, 'Go to Belgium. It's a nice country. Visit our country.”

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