Iowa State students react to Brussels attack


The Brussels Airport in 2008. The airport and metro station were attacked on March 22. 

Michaela Ramm

The world was rattled Tuesday when three explosions in Brussels killed 31 people and injured over 300 others.

The event hit close to home for some, especially to two Iowa State students who were in the airport hours before the attacks.

The blasts occurred in the Brussels airport in Zaventem and the Maelbeek metro station about an hour apart; BBC News reported 11 people were killed at the airport and 20 others were killed at the metro station.

Jonathan McCann, a senior in computer engineering, was visiting Rachel Damman, his girlfriend and a sophomore in accounting who is studying abroad in Venice, Italy, for Spring Break.

The two arrived in Brussels Airport Monday, the day before the attack, for McCann’s flight back to the United States. The two departed, with Damman heading from Brussels back to Italy, around 3 to 4 p.m. that same day.

Damman found out about the attack after she arrived to her dorm in Italy. She reached out to McCann, who said he was just landing in Frankfort when he heard the news from her.

“I was in shock about how close we were to that,” McCann said. Seeing exactly where that…It was definitely hit home way too close for us and our families. It easily could have been us.”

Among those, was one Iowa State student who referred to Brussels as “her second home.”

Morgan Scharnhorst is an ISU alumna who studied elementary education before graduating in May of 2015. After graduation, Scharnhorst spent the summer overseas in Brussels on the US Army Benelux base.

There, she worked with the Camp Adventure program to provide hourly daycare services for military families. She said most of the families she served were high-ranking officials or NATO families.

When she first heard the news, she said she was glued to the TV.

“I felt sick and my heart sank,” Scharnhorst said. “I have a lot of friends and ‘family’ over there because of my summer stay, so I immediately messaged all of them to make sure they were okay. While I was really freaked out, I’m glad they all could message me back right away and assure me they were okay.”

It was a cause of coincidence that McCann and Damman ended up in Brussels, even though Belgium had not be a part of their travel plans.

McCann said they were in Paris for the weekend while traveling. However, due to air traffic controller strikes in the country, dozens of flights were cancelled, including McCann’s. In order to get back to their respective homes, the pair were routed through the Brussels Airport.

“The craziest thing is that we should not have been there,” McCann said. “We should have never been in the Brussels at all during that trip.”

Scharnorn said it was eerie to see the attack happen to a place she knew. While watching the news, that eerie feeling remained with Scharnhorst.

“I was really weird talking to my mom about it. She’d look at the newscasters and their location and ask if I knew where they were at,” she said. “Almost every time I could say ‘this is such and such place’ and ‘it’s this far from my apartment.’ Really scary stuff.”

McCann said experiencing that close call in Brussels Airport was difficult, but not being able to be with Damman after they each heard the news was difficult as well.

Officials believe Brussels, the capital of Belgium and home of the NATO headquarters, was the target due to the recent arrest of a suspect in connection to the November terrorist attacks in Paris.

Three days of national mourning have been declared, BBC News reported, and the country has raised its terrorist alert to the highest level.

McCann said he was aware of advisories to Americans abroad not to travel if they can avoid it. With the changing world and the spike in threats across the world from ISIS, McCann said people should exercise caution; but at the same time, if people live under a rock like terrorists want, then they win.

“The second we stop living our lives as free people, we let anyone who’s trying to cause us harm win,” he said. “But at the same time, we need to exercise caution and pay attention to the people we’re interacting with.”

Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attacks. The terrorist organization released a statement over an affiliated media outlet, calling Belgium “a country participating in the coalition against Islamic State.”

In the following investigation, authorities have been working to identify three suspects. Two men—who were suicide bombers who carried out the attacks—were identified as Brahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, brothers and Belgian nationals, BBC News reported.

The third suspect, who remains unidentified but whose image was capture on CCTV footage, left before the explosions and remains on the run. The bomb he wheeled into the airport failed to detonate until after most people had fled, Al Jazeera reported.

The manhunt for the suspect continued into Wednesday.

When she had heard that the attacks had been carried out by Islamic State, Scharnhorst said she was not surprised.

“After they captured the man behind the Paris attacks in Brussels the other day, I [kind of] figured it was only a matter of time before ISIS retaliated,” she said. “It’s still terrifying though. ISIS is ruthless.”

McCann said the last few days have been difficult, and he’s just now beginning to “decompress and debrief about it.”

With Damman still in her study abroad the next few weeks, and her plans to travel Europe in the weeks following, McCann said he’s worried about her.

“I’m worried about [Damman], especially after the news, which she doesn’t have access to news like we do,” he said. “It’s harder for me worrying being the man in the relationship wanting to protect her…It’s hard for me to tell her that I don’t want her to travel, because I want her to enjoy her time, but it’s definitely unsettling.”

Despite his personal struggle, McCann said there are others who are experiencing something much worse.

“There’s other people who have had it way worse than I did,” he said. “It was a traumatic experience, how I could have been there, but I wasn’t there and I was safe. There’s definitely people out there who were there. I thank God I made it safe…and it easily could have been us.”

Scharhorst said she loved her time in Brussels because of the melding of “old world” and “modern” within the city.

“You see people of all races and all walks of life, which was really cool…” she said. “Not to mention, Brussels is a hub for travel. It’s easy to go somewhere, but people are always coming in, especially since NATO is right there.”

Despite the attacks, Scharnhorst said she would go back to Brussels in a heartbeat.

“I fell in love with the city because of beauty and the people in the city,” she said. “I still think Brussels is a beautiful and I think everything will calm down. Plus, I’d love to see my friends and family again.”

However, McCann said he is not eager to return to Europe in the immediate future.