Ponderosa High alum recounts Brussels bombing

Forensic officers and firemen stand in front of the damaged terminal at Zaventem Airport in Brussels on Wednesday, March 23, 2016.
Forensic officers and firemen stand in front of the damaged terminal at Zaventem Airport in Brussels on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. AP

Something told Brad Waldow that he and his Port of Antwerp Giants basketball teammate should step away from the line where they were waiting to buy snacks at the Brussels airport on Tuesday morning.

“I just had a sense that we needed to leave,” he said. “Something seemed off. I can’t really explain it.”

So they abandoned their plans for food and made their way to the airport’s security area. Chaos ensued moments later, as a bomb ripped through the part of the building they had just departed.

“People started screaming, running,” recalled Waldow, a former star player for Ponderosa High School in Shingle Springs and Saint Mary’s in Moraga who now plays overseas. Someone speaking through tears over a microphone told everyone to evacuate as quickly as possible. “We didn’t know where we were going,” Waldow said. “People were getting pushed over, trampled. Cellphones, food, bags were flying.”

Waldow and his teammate, former University of San Francisco player Kwame Vaughn, helped lead the charge of hundreds of people to the airport’s bottom floor and, hopefully, to safety. They were unable to exit the building right away, so they chose to “stand by a window, in case a gunman was still in the area and we needed to get out quickly,” he said. “Nobody truly knew if we were still in danger, or what was going on.”

Through the glass, the travelers were able to see “the smoke and blasted-out windows at the front entrance” to the airport, said Waldow. Waldow spotted injured and bleeding victims of the attack. Later, he saw photos of the extent of the damage, some of it “maybe 25 feet” from where Waldow and Vaughn had been standing in line for snacks.

Waldow, realizing that his family members might be seeing images of the explosion on television and the Internet, called his mother and brother while hiding out with fellow travelers.

News reports suggested that they had been in the midst of a terrorist attack.

The attacks at the airport and at a subway station in Brussels, they later learned, were believed to have been carried out by two brothers and a bomb-maker who detonated suicide bombs. At least 31 people died from the assaults, and about 270 were injured.

Other Sacramento-area travelers who were in Brussels at the time of the bombings sent word back home that they were safe. Davis High School sophomore Mack Fee told BlueDevilHUB.com that his family was directed to the tarmac while emergency personnel worked at the terminal. Ben Sharpe, researcher with International Council on Clean Transportation, emailed The Bee that he was at the airport at the time, but he declined to talk more about about the ordeal.

The University of California said it identified about a dozen students in and around Brussels during the attack, traveling for spring break or while on UC study-abroad programs. Four students from its Barcelona program were at the airport at the time of the explosion, but were able to make their way to a hotel outside the city center. UC officials said all of the students have been located and are safe. Some are working with a travel risk management company to find safe shelter and transport out of Belgium, the officials said.

Waldow said when he first phoned his mother, in the wee hours of the morning California time, “she was crying; she just wanted to hear me talk, to know that I was OK,” he said. “I told her I needed to go, to help figure out where the danger was coming from, to make a plan. But she kept saying, ‘No, stay on the phone.’ I told her I had to go. I really didn’t want her to hear it if something did happen to me.”

Hours later, after finally making it back to Antwerp and then traveling to Paris, where his team planned to board a plane for Milan, it sunk in to Waldow that he and his friend had narrowly escaped getting maimed or killed. He figures it was his grandfather, who had died just the previous night, who protected him from harm.

“He had literally passed away just five or six hours before it happened, and I had been thinking about him,” Waldow said. Perhaps his granddad was the voice in Waldow’s head that told him to leave the area that later was partially destroyed.

Waldow said he and his teammates, who will play in Italy on Thursday, likely will be thinking about their experience at the Brussels airport for a long time to come. Hard stares from strangers, or an abandoned suitcase, trigger more concern now, he said.

But he has no reservations about continuing to play in Europe, a part of the world he had never visited before joining the Belgian team.

“Overall, Europe has been a great experience,” he said. “I have been to so many countries I never would have been able to visit if I didn’t play basketball here.

“The attack was terrible, but I believe it could happen anywhere,” said Waldow. “Paris, Belgium, the Middle East, America. It’s unpredictable, and there is no way to truly protect everyone from an event like this.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert. Alexei Koseff contributed to this report.

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