Attack on Zaventem: an operations perspective

On 22nd March, two bombs detonated in the check-in hall of Brussels’ Zaventem Airport, causing a total of 14 fatalities, over 100 injuries and inflicting extensive damage to the building. Head of Security Operations Wilfried Covent elucidates the incident, the recovery operation and what the attack means for the future of security operations at the airport.

In the first minutes after the attack, a conversation occurred between myself and my colleagues to establish a plan of action. During those minutes, we also informed our CEO and the Operations Director of what had happened.

In the meantime, wounded people started to emerge from the terminal, some of whom were being carried out by others, including by security staff.
Soon, the first rescue teams – the fire department of Brussels Airport and medical services – started to arrive on site.

At this point I went outside, crossed the curb, and made my way through the victims to our main office building where our crisis centre is situated. We immediately decided to stop flight operations (departure and arrival), and to concentrate on the organisation of the rescue and evacuation of all people still present in the gate areas of the terminals.

The whole airport was declared ‘landside’, facilitating the emergency services entering airport premises, and making the evacuation more efficient. After a while, government representatives arrived to lead the official crisis management operation with all stakeholders involved.

The situation was now clear: there were two explosions in the landside area inside the terminal, inflicting significant fatalities, casualties, and destruction of the landside area of the terminal building. The nature of the explosions indicated a coordinated and planned terrorist attack. A total of fourteen people died, and over 100 people were badly injured. Our thoughts were – and will always be – with the victims, family, friends and relatives.

The Recovery Operation
Together with the police, we immediately started a complete review of all CCTV records, retrospectively reconstructing the scenario from the arrival of the three terrorists by taxi at the airport (around 07h32) until both explosions took place at either end of the terminal.

While watching the footage of the terrorists arriving, the reality of the situation became clear: there were three terrorists, each one probably carrying a bomb, but there had only been two explosions. Therefore, we concluded, it was likely that one terrorist had escaped leaving an unexploded bomb still in the terminal. We immediately informed the rescue and police services to evacuate the terminal and to keep a wide perimeter around the potential third bomb.

Once evacuation had been completed, military experts arrived on site and initiated a controlled explosion of the third bomb. This caused huge damage to the terminal, but fortunately caused no further injuries.

During the first few days after the attack, the airport was closed, both for departures and arrivals, and crisis management operations were underway 24-hours a day. It took just six days to build a temporary terminal, complete with check-in facilities, ticketing desks and a capacity of 800 passengers/hour, (the same capacity as a regional airport). This was an immense job, which could only be realised in such a short space of time by working closely with a dedicated and unified team.