Kent State professor, student recount experience with Brussels attacks

By ANDREW bugel | staff writer Published: March 31, 2016 4:00 AM

The terror attacks last week in Brussels were felt all around the world, but a little more so at Kent State University.

Nineteen students and two faculty members from the College of Business Administration were in Brussels on a study-abroad trip during the March 22 bombings of the Brussels airport and subway that killed 35 people.

Luckily, everyone on the trip was safe and out of harm's way.

For Don Williams, professor of economics at Kent State, that simple fact is what is most important.

"I had 19 students that I was responsible for," Williams said. "Their safety was my No. 1 priority."

Williams said the students were on the trip as part of a semester-long course called "European Economic Issues," and had arrived March 19. This is the third time Williams has offered the course, which includes trips to Brussels, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The class takes time to visit international organizations such as the European Parliament and Commission in Brussels.

"On the morning of the attacks, we had an appointment with the National Bank of Belgium, and we were learning about economic issues in the European union when we learned of the bombings," Williams said. "That afternoon, we cancelled our other visits and instead went back to the hotel and stayed there throughout the day until the lockdown was lifted around 4 p.m."

Williams said the first thing he did was contact Kent State University and told students to contact their parents to let everyone know they were safe.

"We were safe," Williams said. "We were not near the incident at all. We had dinner at a restaurant just next door to the hotel we were at that evening and, the next morning, we continued our trip."

Junior economics student Alana Biles, who was on the trip, described the morning as a "scary experience," but was reassured by the fact that she was safe.

"We were in the National Bank of Belgium and were giving a presentation," Biles recalled. "We heard a knock on the door and security guard came in and pulled out the man who was giving our presentation. We could hear them speaking pretty urgently in the hallway in another language and we have no idea what's going on, but he comes back in and tells us there has been an attack and we can finish our presentation. Everyone was a little scared and nervous because we had no idea what was going on."

Williams said the ironic part was the class was at the train station the day before it was bombed and also the day of the attacks.

"We were scheduled to be at the station at 2 p.m. Tuesday," Williams said. "So, we were quite lucky that our schedule was the way it was. I never dwelled on the fact that it could have been us since we were there the day before and scheduled to be back the day of the attacks. I was more focused on what we needed to do to move forward safely."

Williams said he kept in constant contact with students at the hotel.

"We were told that we had to leave as a group," Williams said. "When we got back to the hotel, I was emailing people to let them know what had happened and did take some calls from parents. I had everyone come down to the lobby and we would share what news we learned at that time," Williams said. "I had access to local news through the Internet and we just tried to keep everyone informed on what was happening. By the afternoon, things started going back to normal and everything started to open back up (from the lockdown)."

According to Biles, the class was only about one to two miles away from the train station at the time of the bombings.

"It was just the fear of not knowing what was going to happen next, and the city is just so small so you're just afraid that something else was going to happen," Biles said. "Looking back on it now, I realize how well everything was handled and how safe we really were."

When asked if the experience affects any future plans Biles and Williams have to travel outside of the country, both agree this is not the case.

"This can happen anywhere so you don't want to just mark off the whole world and say that you're never going to travel again," Biles said.

POSTED: Thursday, March 31, 2016 12:00 AM
Updated: Sunday, January 29, 2023 07:47 PM