Travelers from Chicago area stranded in Brussels after terror attack

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Travelers from Chicago area stranded in Brussels after terror attack

By Tony Briscoe, Chicago Tribune

Chicago-area residents who were on their way to Africa for a mission trip were at the Brussels airport during Tuesday’s terror attacks.

Reached by phone at a makeshift Red Cross shelter in a village outside the Belgian capital, James Fischer, of Highwood, said he had arrived at the airport and was walking through a terminal awaiting a connecting flight when he heard sirens and an evacuation announcement.

Travelers in the terminal didn’t become alarmed until a hysterical police officer arrived to warn passengers, Fischer said.


“A police officer ran in sweating. She said there were bombs,” said Fischer, 31. “Then there was a stampede toward the doors, and people were helping kids and those who were older get out first.”

Fischer was on his way to Congo for an aid mission through the Evangelical Covenant Church, a network of hundreds of churches throughout the U.S. and Canada whose offices are in Chicago.

Catherine Knarr, who lives in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood but grew up in Wheaton, was also traveling to Congo for a different mission project for the church. She had just landed at the airport on another flight, and her plane was still on the tarmac when she and fellow passengers were informed by their pilot about a “security issue.”

The pilot later made a second announcement that there had been an explosion, but many passengers, including Knarr, had learned about the attack using their smartphones.

“I basically found out about the explosion after I talked to my husband,” said Knarr, 25. “It was like 3 a.m. in Chicago, but my husband just happened to be awake because he’s a college student and he stays up late. He said the news said there was some kind of terror attack.”

Knarr said her husband told her before he left that he had a bad feeling about her going to Congo.

“But I said, ‘Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.’ He stayed up all night. It honestly seemed really surreal,” she said.

Knarr said she remained on the plane outside the airport for about an hour before the passengers were moved to a nearby hangar, where she met up with Fischer.

Several hours later, the travelers boarded a bus and were taken to a building where the Red Cross had set up an operation for stranded travelers, providing cots for them and serving dinner.

Knarr said she was traveling to Congo for the church’s Covenant Kids Congo program, which provides assistance to children struggling from the effects of war and lack of resources.

Fischer, a director of economic development for the church, had planned to help build a hydroelectric dam to power a local hospital.

Fischer and Knarr said no one from their group was injured but that they were still uncertain when and if they were going to be able to continue their travels. They said they received word that the Brussels airport will remain closed Wednesday.

“We’re just grateful everyone from our group is safe,” Fischer said.

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