Imagine, you are a flight attendant, on a regular work trip, in a foreign country. Then suddenly you realise you are standing next to a suicide bomber!
The now infamous photo of a flight attendant looking shocked and dazed with her clothes ripped and blood pouring down her face was taken within minutes of her regaining consciousness after being sent flying through the air by the force of the explosion meant to spread terror.
A month in a coma, beating death then being told she would probably never walk again. Nidhi Chaphekar is a Jet Airways flight attendant and a survivor of the Brussels airport terror attack. Her's is a unique story of destiny, resilience, her fight back to life and now back finally back to flying again.
Nidhi Chaphekar was a Jet Airways flight attendant and a survivor of the Brussels airport terror attack. When she regained consciousness, Nidhi Chaphekar was lying on the floor of Zaventem airport in Brussels, across the room from the bird-shaped statue she had been standing near a few moments before. She tried to open her eyes, but her body wasn’t doing what she wanted it to. Around her was a haze of thick, black smoke, which was making her light-headed. She could hear her own internal voice, saying: “Nidhi, you’re alive. Nidhi, it was a bomb. Nidhi, you have to tell your family. The children have exams. Nidhi, come on, get up.”
It was March 22nd 2016, the day that suicide bombers Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, Najim Laachraoui and one other unidentified man attacked Zaventem airport in the Belgian capital. An hour later, Bakraoui’s younger brother Khalid set off a bomb at Maelbeek metro station on Rue de la Loi. It was the deadliest act of terrorism in Belgian history, and the government declared three days of national mourning. Islamic State (Isis) claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed 32 people and injured more than 300 others, including Nidhi Chaphekar, a 41-year-old cabin manager for Indian airline Jet Airways, whose photograph became a symbol of the horror of that day.
After 3 weeks in a coma, it took two days for her to remember who she was and what had happened to her. When it suddenly came back, one morning about 10.30am, it was outside visiting hours, and she told the medical attendant she needed to see her family immediately, that she had been in a terrorist attack at Zaventem airport. “He said: ‘Yes, your family are all here, they’ve been here for a month.’ That’s when I realised how long I’d been out.”
Her determination to bounce back was no surprise to Chaphekar’s family. Even as a young woman, she had never been the type to give up hope. She had wanted to fly, but when she realised she didn’t have the right qualifications to be a pilot, she bought herself a dress and interviewed for a job as a flight attendant. The talented athlete and beauty pageant queen, who married for love and against her parents’ wishes, worked her way up to cabin manager at Jet Airways.
Her childhood also bred resilience. She was raised in the village of Rajasansi, near an airport in the north Indian state of Punjab, she recalls one incident during the Sikh uprising in the 1980s when armed men ransacked her house and put a gun to her head. She was only 12. But not even that could prepare her for the sound a bomb makes when it explodes.
Nidhi relays her story in great detail, from the bombing, worrying about being shot by the terrorists that were still roaming about the airport, through to the long journey to physical and emotional recovery
“I do believe it was destiny,” she says. She hadn’t been scheduled to fly that day, but her rota had been changed last minute. “It was supposed to happen to me. And I’m glad it did. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else.”