He normally advises people on spiritual matters. But after last month’s terror attacks in Brussels, airport chaplain Michel Gaillard is busy helping staff cope with the trauma as they return to their jobs.
Father Michel Gaillard runs his fingers over a wooden bench covered in a thin layer of dust - a remnant of the bomb blasts that hit Zaventem airport the morning of March 22, killing 16 people. The airport chapel is still closed to the public. It's normally where passengers or staff would come to pray. But now, it functions as more of a counselling center, where Gaillard helps people deal with the trauma of recent events. The chaplain says he'll never forget the day of the attacks.
Gaillard was just about to eat breakfast at home when he heard the horrible news: Two bombs had gone off at the airport. "We didn't expect it to happen here. We thought it might happen in the city, as was the case in France. But we didn't think it would happen in our airport, in our workplace," Gaillard said.
He spontaneously decided to drive to the airport while it was being evacuated. He soon found himself amid a stream of police, firefighters, ambulances and journalists heading for Zaventem. Somehow he managed to avoid the enormous traffic jam that developed within minutes. The situation was chaotic: People running for their lives, ambulances arriving, firefighters picking through the debris. A policeman advised him to head to a nearby sports hall, where travellers who had escaped the blasts were being sheltered.
On arriving, Gaillard found he was the only airport employee among hundreds of stranded passengers. Everybody turned to the man in the fluorescent yellow vest: Some were worried about lost suitcases or passports, others were asking after their connecting flights. "The people maybe weren't aware that the situation was really serious," said Gaillard.
March 22, 2016: Passengers and staff were united in shock and grief after the twin blasts in the airport departures hall
But others had actually witnessed the horror. Some were mute, still in shock. Others openly wept. The images they had seen in the departures hall were overwhelming. "It is such a horrifying situation that you cannot manage it, you cannot do much. You have to wait until this moment [of shock], this stage passes, to be able to really reach the person," Gaillard said, his own voice trembling at the recollection.
Simply the fact that he was there, in his yellow vest, was providing some comfort. Gaillard says it was about reassuring people that they were not alone. "It was a most spiritual moment," the chaplain said. "There were some who asked for a blessing, the believers among the travellers. But at that moment, everybody was lost."
Returning to normal life
Michel Gaillard knows the airport in Zaventem inside out. He has worked there for 10 years, providing spiritual and psychological support to passengers and staff. Right now, he says, it's the latter who desperately need help. People are dealing with the aftermath in different ways. The metro driver at the controls of the train where the third deadly blast occurred near Maelbeek station went back to work the day after. And the airport employees are also returning to normal life. "There are those who fear coming back to work. And there are some who, despite the terrifying experience, came back the next day. They were in the midst of the tragedy, and they came to work the following day to make the airport operational again," Gaillard said.
The chaplain clearly admires those hardy souls. But he has no sympathy for the striking air controllers who, just two weeks after the terror attacks, brought the airport to a standstill again. He says it was "not a good moment" to fight for pension rights. At the same time though, he acknowledges that the strike was, in a way, a return to normality.
"Was God present at that moment?"
For many people though, March 22 will remain the day their lives changed forever. Gaillard says he has listened to so many stories and painful testimonies of people who were injured by the blasts, in some cases losing their feet or hands. He has also been dealing with the grief of people who lost loved ones. "The question I am asked most is: Was God present at that moment? And my answer is: There is one hand launching the bombs. And there is another hand helping to save the lives, to heal the hearts. Actually, there were many people who came to try and save others. And that's where you find God," said Gaillard.