• I Want to Erase The Fear Factor: Nidhi Chaphekar, Survivor of Brussels Terror Attack

    Nidhi Chaphekar became the face of the 2016 Brussels Airport attack just hours after the incident. But she only saw the picture that made her famous days later — on April 18 — after she woke up from a coma.

    It was the 22nd of March, the air hostess tells us. “I am usually the last person to board a flight. Being the leader, I board after everyone else is boarded. I am always on time.”

    She was on time on that day as well. It was four minutes to 8 am. Chaphekar was on the ground floor. She took an escalator and went to the second floor. She stepped off, and was only able to take a few steps before she heard a loud resounding sound. There had been a blast 15-20 metres away from where she was standing.

    Chaphekar says that she never considered that the blast could be the result of terrorist activity. “I saw smoke and stopped. There was silence for 2-3 seconds, after which people started running and screaming.”

    “I still thought it was a medical emergency and wanted to go ahead, but the authorities told me to wait. The situation was becoming increasingly alarming. I could either go down, or take a left. I took a left turn, walked 17 steps before there was another explosion,” Chaphekar says.

    “I opened my eyes, but I was fearful of more blasts. I looked left and right, and slowly moved my head so that I could see through the dense smoke. I couldn’t feel my legs.”

    She felt like a football. The explosion blasted her 15-20 feet away from where she was standing, and she landed up in another place.

    “Afterwards, I landed on my feet and I collapsed. While collapsing, I said to myself that there has been a bomb blast. ”

    She was almost unconscious, but she didn’t allow herself to rest. Something at the back of her mind told her to get up, it was too dangerous to stay where she was. Images of her kids flashed through her mind. She had to tell her family, she was ok.

    “I opened my eyes, but I was fearful of more blasts. I looked left and right, and slowly moved my head so that I could see through the dense smoke. I couldn’t feel my legs.”

    She knew she had to move, and tried to get up. But she soon saw that the skin had been scooped out of her legs, and that her legs had metal pieces in them. She called around, but didn’t see any movement. Luckily, the smoke started lifting, allowing her to see more clearly.

    While she was lying on the chair, someone took her picture, and within minutes, hers had become the face of the attack.

    “I said no I can’t take it.”

    What Happened Next:

    Chaphekar was sitting in a pool of blood and needed to lie down. Luckily, she heard the clack of a police officer or soldier’s shoes. A man was coming towards her and so she raised her hand for help. “Give me a minute,” he said, “I will be back.” And in another few seconds, someone else lifted her up and placed her on the chair. It was a soldier, only one of the 24 who were in the airport at the time. Chaphekar still remembers his name — Henry Paul. She met him and thanked him when she went back to Brussels for the commemoration of the attack.

    While she was lying on the chair, someone took her picture, and within minutes hers had become the face of the attack.

    “I didn’t know how much time I had. I thought I would die with the blood loss and wanted to tie my legs. I was putting pressure on my legs. I lifted my leg onto the chair with help. People were crying and everybody seemed helpless.”

    Even in her injured state, it was difficult for Chaphekar to see people suffer. She was trained to respond in emergency situations. “Normally, I would have been the first to reach out,” she says. Still, she tried to give assurance to people by assuring them that medical aid would be here soon.

    Medical Help: 

    When two people put her on a stretcher and directed it out of the rubble, she thought that she would finally go to the hospital. However, the wait continued. She was put in front of the popular Sheraton hotel.

    “I thought they would come rushing,” she says. “I was there for half an hour. It was so cold and I was shivering.  There was a policeman with me throughout, who kept asking me questions. My energy level was low, so I was replying in a weak voice.  I can’t feel my legs, I can’t feel my legs, I kept telling him.”

    Soon after they put her on a rolling stretcher and she thought that she would finally be taken to an ambulance. However, she was taken to the end of the airport, where there is a Fire system cabinet. She was lifted and put in there along with 4 or 5 other people, and medical aid arrived soon after. He said that someone from his team would come, and placed a sticker on Nidhi. Soon after he left, there was a big noise from outside. Apparently a third bomb had been found.

    “I was trying to stay conscious and waited for the medical team. Then the medical team arrived and assessed me, put an IV and tourniquet. I was thinking what if they amputate my legs, but I was thankful to be alive.”

    Her stretcher was lifted and kept outside the ambulance. She asked why she was not being put inside, and was told that there were many casualties, and that they needed to wait for more people.

    “I didn’t know how much time I had. I thought I would die with the blood loss and wanted to tie my legs. I was putting pressure on my legs. I lifted my leg onto the chair with help. People were crying and everybody seemed helpless.”

    However, she was put in the ambulance in a few minutes, and was the only person in it. She was told that they were going to Antwerp, and her heart started sinking. “It’s too far,” she thought, “I won’t make it.”

    Luckily, they reached in half an hour. “A team of doctors rushed to me,  pressing my abdomen chest, asking me questions. I was called diamond lady — I was wearing solitaires. On my left hand, I was wearing bangles, and when they removed them the whole skin came out, and I felt pain for the first time.”

    “I asked them two questions — are you going to amputate my leg, to which they said I don’t know, and is my face burnt — to which they said yes.”

    After that, Chaphekar says that she didn’t want to live anymore. As an air-hostess, she thought she wouldn’t be able to fly with a burnt face, as a lot of the job depends on looking good.

    Regaining Consciousness and Realising That the Picture Had Gone Viral:

    Chaphekar gained consciousness after 23 days in the hospital. She recognised her husband on April 16. And on the 18th, he showed her the famous picture.

    “We came to know you are alive through this picture,” he said. He said that it took him 9 hours to locate me.

    The picture came immediately after the attack. “My husband said thank god for the picture. This picture made me sure you would be able to make it. You were sitting and conscious,” she says.

    When she saw the picture, she realised just how helpless and in pain she had been. But though the picture gave hope to her husband, it was used to create sensation. It was printed on all the front pages of newspapers.

    “I want to erase the fear factor. Incidents should not change your life, it must go on.”

    She says that she would have appreciated a little privacy. Perhaps her face should have been blurred, and the photo shouldn’t have been portrayed in newspapers as a full page ad. Since then, she has requested editors not to use it.

    The Decision to Get Back to Flying:  

    Chaphekar’s recovery process is still going on. She says that she is touched by the words of her doctors in Antwerp. Her doctor, Dr Peters, said that her case is miraculous. There was a time when they were about to amputate her right leg. But they took a chance, never imagining that she would one day be able to walk. They had operated on her leg for more than 6 hours.

    She is determined to fly again.

    “The positivity within me is working. I have to go through a few more surgeries. I don’t have a heel bone in my right leg. But I walk putting pressure on my toes. I also do physiotherapy. The bones have started growing,” she says.

    Flying is her passion. “I would make every person happy. Sharing happiness is my dream. I remember every flight of mine.”

    “When I went back, I had mixed feelings. I cried. I sat on the same chair I had been photographed in. I could not control my emotions. It was important to erase everything — to close that chapter and start with a new chapter.”

     On Going Back to Brussels And Meeting King Philippe: 

    “It was important to go there,” she says.

    The King had come to meet her while she had been in the hospital. When she went back, she met her doctor, the nurses who had taken care of her at the hospital, and the commando officer who had helped her.

    “[The commemoration] was a platform where we could share with each other about how to move and where we could pay gratitude to one another.”

    “When I went back, I had mixed feelings. I cried. I sat on the same chair I had been photographed in. I could not control my emotions. It was important to erase everything — to close that chapter and start a new chapter.”

    How she overcame PTSD:

    Chaphekar took medicines for every night she was in the hospital. If she didn’t, she would have major nightmares. Every night, she would think that someone was going to come kill her.

    Finally, she spoke to her family about what she was going through, and they advised her to change her mindset. They advised her to start meditating and put her energy into positive thinking. She started listening to positive speeches and when she was called by schools and even TED Talks to speak about her experience, she pushed herself to go. When she agreed to go back to Brussels, she was scared that she would start yelling during the ceremony. She decided to go for counselling, and her company arranged for her to see a therapist, who said her feelings were normal.

    When she heard that from a trained professional, Chaphekar felt more confident.

    Her family’s support and her organisation’s support have kept her going.

    “The whole world was praying for me, wanting that this lady be fine. How could I let their prayers go in vain? I am trying to repay people for the concern they have shown.”

    The message she would like to give terror attack victims: 

    “We cannot erase what has happened. We cannot say that we won’t move on. Moving on doesn’t mean that it has to be dark. As victims, we have gone through so much, and we can enlighten others’ lives. I am putting all my efforts to generate love.”

     Also Read: Women’s March Organisers Show Solidarity With Westminster Attack Victims