Faculty members Drs. Richard and Barbara England and learning center coordinator Connie Pritchard accompanied Freed-Hardeman students to Europe for the Spring 2016 semester. As the world woke to headlines about terrorists’ attacks in Brussels March 22, the three leaders implemented plans and maintained constant communication with students, families and administration, as events unfolded. The following pages contain excerpts from Barbara England’s journal during those days.
We woke up in London. At about 10:30 a.m., we took a taxi to St. Pancras station to catch the 12:38 EuroStar to Brussels. Security and passport controls were normal routine now. After traveling so much, it was reassuring when they stopped us so often. After all, if they stopped people like me, surely they would stop the sketchy-looking people who could be bringing in the bombs.
We watched movies and waited for the kids to return from free travel. Our first group of four girls was due to arrive that night. It was a fun, relaxing afternoon. I believe God knew we needed that for what was about to happen.
That evening around 9 p.m., the first four girls came in.
MARCH 23, 1 a.m.
Exhausted. Exhausted is how I feel right now. At 8:30 yesterday morning as I stumbled to the table, Richard had his computer up and said, “Oh, no.” He was looking at the accounts on his news feed. “Explosions at the Brussels Airport.” All I could think of was we had five students leaving Greece at 8:30 flying into the Brussels airport.
And we had five in London headed for the Eurostar train scheduled to leave at 12:58.
I spent much of the morning going between iPad, iPhone and computer, using Facebook, email and text messages to stay in contact with our students, their families, the campus administration and our family.
Was I worried? Not really. I was too busy staying focused on getting our students in the air and here safely and getting our students in London to a safe place.
Richard looked up the flight with the girls in the air headed to Brussels and tracked it. I checked the airlines and everything kept saying, “on schedule to arrive in Brussels.” From what we were seeing in the news, we were hoping their flight was going somewhere else. It looked like they were headed into Frankfurt, but then the plane turned and was headed toward Düsseldorf. The girls later told us that the pilot was speaking in Greek and they heard him say “terrorist” and “explosions.” They were scared. A very nice man in front of them who spoke English translated for them. When we were finally able to make contact with the girls, we had a plan. They were going to train from Dusseldorf to Aachan and taxi to Verviers. The borders were closed in some places, and none of the trains were running in Belgium. When the girls finally arrived around 4 p.m., we all ran down the stairs and to the door. The girls were surrounded with tears of joy and hugs.
Another group in London started sending me messages as soon as they woke up. They were supposed to catch the train to Brussels. The frantic texts were coming: “What should we do?” Another plan was hatched. One of the girls knew a guy with Lipscomb University who was studying in London. So we started trying to contact them. I called the states; no one was at work yet. We got names from the website and got on Facebook and started contacting people listed there. Connie was finding their location and where our girls were to see if they were close. The student got me a phone number, and I left a frantic message. The faculty member in charge in London called me back and said they would get the girls and keep them until we could take care of them.
Late that afternoon, the Frerots (a Belgian couple, Jean Marie and Suzanne, who are missionaries in Verviers) came over. They were very concerned. We talked. They hurt for their country and fellow Belgians. They hurt for us. I could see it in their eyes. Before they left, we held hands and prayed — we in English and they in French. I don’t know what was said in French, but God did. Suzanne probably didn’t know what we said, but God did.
MARCH 23, 9:05 a.m.
I slept last night. I’m not sure how, but I slept and woke up feeling pretty rested. But now, after being up 50 minutes and reading the news and Facebook, I am once again exhausted. This might be the new norm.
We woke up to an email with a plan. A plan for today, I have discovered, is all I need to focus on. Today…four of our five girls in London are flying to Frankfurt. Our three guys in Spain are flying to Frankfurt. The plan for today is for them to meet at the airport and train to Aachen, Germany. Then, they are to take a taxi to Verviers if they can’t train into Belgium. Yesterday the trains in Belgium stopped everywhere, and a taxi was the only way in to Belgium. So, right now we sit and wait. I stare at the news, at Facebook, at my email. I reread text messages from yesterday, and go back and look at the comments in my posts from friends: prayers being lifted continually for our safety, for wisdom for all of us to make the right decisions and the right choices.
Social media has been very good. The cell phone towers were not working yesterday, and social media was the only way we could stay connected during part of the day.
MARCH 24, 11 a.m.
Yesterday we worked in Verviers, getting the students from London and Spain back. They arrived just after 10 p.m. When we arrived at the train station, it was locked. We spent several minutes trying to find an open door and trying to contact the students by texts. The things going through my head: Had something else happened? Had a threat to the Verviers train station been made? Had the trains stopped again? Primary thought: Where were our kids, and how were we going to get them to us? The last text had been, “We are at Liege. Getting on a train at 9:24 to Verviers. The train takes 30 minutes.” Where were they?
After a long five-minute wait, we heard from them, “Okay. Be there very soon.” While we were waiting, an unmarked van pulled up with two men and a woman who had her head covered. One man got out; they were talking and after a long few seconds they got back in and left. I was afraid they were suicide bombers. That’s what the last two days have done to me!
Finally we saw them. We hesitated a second, and when we knew it was them, we started walking very fast towards them. I grabbed the first one and then started pulling them all into a big group hug. The relief of seeing them, hugging them, is indescribable.
We walked back with the students, some of whom were visibly shaking from nerves and fear. While the three guys were calm, some of the others finally felt they could let go.
When they came up the stairs, nine pairs of arms waited to grab each one and hug them. It was a great reunion.
The students described how afraid they were to fly. They wanted to get back to us because they did not want to fly home alone. They looked for people with black gloves (like the terrorists had worn) at the airport. The fear this act of violence has put in all of us is not right. My trust of my fellow man has left.
MARCH 24,11:23 p.m.
Today the email came. The semester was being cut short. We called the kids into the room and let them read their email. No one said anything for a few minutes. It was a sad moment because the kids were losing half their trip. I know they were sad. But some were very relieved. I think their parents were more relieved than they were.
I watched these kids grow up this week. They aren’t the same carefree kids we brought six weeks ago.
I felt a lot of emotions when I read the email. I was sad; through the senseless act of terrorism, we have lost the freedom to travel. These cowards have turned the world upside down in many ways.
MARCH 25, 7:57 p.m.
The plans are set. We need to keep a low profile until we leave.
Today we tried to get tickets canceled for a trip we were supposed to make to Paris. We couldn’t get the train tickets canceled, so we came back. When we got back, the military was positioned by the doors to the train station, and a policeman was going in.
Beginning with Tuesday, this has been a stressful week. I have had a small headache all week. I’m probably dehydrated, and when we get back, I will probably fall apart. Right now, knowing we have an exit day plan helps.
Praying that Monday morning we can slip out of here quietly and unnoticed.
MARCH 26, 8:46 p.m.
Richard and I had to go to Aachan again. We were able to get the tickets fixed so they could get a refund. As we came back, I stared out the window thinking this probably would be the last time on this trip that I would be coming from Aachan. I remembered the first time we came — the day after we arrived. The fields had been covered with snow, and it was gray and cloudy. Today as I looked out, I saw green fields, blue skies and cows grazing in the field. As our journey got closer to Verviers, the train went through a tunnel. Everything went black, and I thought about riding trains through tunnels. We have done that a few times since we got here. Usually, I’m thinking that I hope no one is coming towards us. Basically, since we can’t look out the front of the train, we just have to trust God that there’s not a train racing towards us. I was thinking about all of that and how God has taken care of us this week. At that moment, when we came out of the tunnel into the beautiful sunlight, I knew God had been with us. I looked over and saw a hillside covered in daffodils. Everywhere they were beautiful, and I thought, “Everything is going to be fine.”
We came back and ate pitas and frites from the pita man around the corner. Then we hid Easter eggs and had an Easter egg hunt. This week has been very stressful but it has ended well. “God’s got this” are the words that have kept me going.
MARCH 28 — Homeward bound
Today we woke up and took our bags to the train station. Richard and I were the last ones out of the facility. It was hard locking it up, knowing that our trip had been cut short because of evil in the world.
Yesterday, Jean Marie Frerot preached a sermon about love. He spoke in French, but I followed along with the verses. It was a very thoughtful and thought-provoking lesson. I listened to the words he was reading in French as I read my Bible. In response to the horrible acts of terrorism that had been carried out in his beloved country, he spoke of our answering with love.
We left today and walked through the crowds. A major flea market was in the streets. So much for slipping out unnoticed.
MARCH 29, 12:22 p.m.
I’m in the air and flying back. How do I feel? It’s a mixed bag of emotions. I’m happy to be headed back but also sad.
My stomach was queasy at the Delta check-in counter. One week ago today, three guys with bombs came into the Brussels airport. I, like so many innocent people last week, was checking in for a flight to the United States. Those people were hurt or died near the check-in counters. Those were people just like me. I thought about those people today, people excited to be leaving and not knowing when they entered the airport what was going to happen.
I’m not ready to end the relationships that we have formed. The kids have been great. In many ways, it felt to me that we became a more solid group after what happened last week.
We landed in Detroit, and it felt very good to be on American soil. We understand everything the people are saying on the plane. I’m more excited to be here. Things that I hadn’t really thought about that make me comfortable are announcements and advertising that I can understand.
On March 29, we arrived in Nashville a little later than scheduled. Before we left the area where we got off the plane, Richard led a prayer of thanksgiving. Then we headed toward the front of the airport. When we got there, it was unbelievable.
A very large group of parents was there, as well as administrators, to welcome us. There were a lot of hugs and tears of joy.
Dr. Wiley (FHU’s president) shook everyone’s hand, and then we all held hands in a circle, as he led a prayer. He was crying, and it was a very emotional moment. It was nice to be able to pray openly and in public. That freedom is something I probably have taken for granted and somehow this event makes me realize that. We left with Jenny (Johnson) and Josh (Barber) after we spoke to a reporter. It was all very exciting; by the time we made it back to Henderson, we were exhausted.
The next day a reporter called and we talked to her. Newspapers carried the story, and my mind was swirling in a fog. Thursday was even worse, and Friday when we went to a faculty meeting, an AP reporter called. It’s all been rather surreal.
It feels strange to be back. I find myself thinking, today I was supposed to be in Paris. The calendar reminder pops up every day on my computer telling me where I am supposed to be today. At first I didn’t want to see it, but now I think I will leave it. It will remind me of the group I shared six weeks with and how, although a tragic event cut our trip short, we shared a wonderful trip. I told someone earlier this week, “The world is full of evil and we cannot let evil overshadow the good and positive in the world.” We talked with the students before we left Monday about being a “light” in the world, especially when the dark clouds were so thick. We felt that we were experiencing an opportunity to let that light shine. And, oh, how our students shined! The news reporter asked us how long we had been taking trips like this with students. We told her around 10 years. She asked us after this experience would we go back again. Richard answered, “Absolutely we would go back! We can’t let events like this stop us from doing things like this.”
I believe providing our students with the opportunity to see other cultures, the arts and the beauty of God’s world is as important as any lecture in the classroom. Maybe it’s more important.
APRIL 2 -— Afterthoughts
Tonight I’m thinking about a man we met in Brussels. On the day we arrived, exhausted from the transatlantic flight, we had to find our way out of the Brussels airport. We went down three stories after we retrieved our luggage, to the exit that led to the train station. We had to pay the diablo tax to leave, and we found a very kind clerk who spoke English. He was very patient, as he validated our Eurail passes one at a time and printed out not one but 20 tickets for us to leave the airport.
When we returned two weeks later from Milan, Italy, at 4:30 p.m., we found the same clerk and told him how much we’d appreciated his kind, patient and caring manner the last time we came through so tired and confused. He was once again very kind and arranged for an attendant to accompany us through the gate to the train. He printed out the train schedule and smiled at us as we waved goodbye.
I’m thinking about that Brussels airport employee who was just doing his job when he made a good impression on me, a weary traveler. I wonder where he was Tuesday, March 22. I hope he was at this desk helping someone else, far away from the explosions. I hope he didn’t decide to run up to the entrance near the departure check-in to grab a cup of coffee.
When there is a face to connect to a tragic event, it makes it even harder to comprehend why someone would do something so senseless. It makes me sad all over again, sad for Belgium and sad for our world.
One week ago today I sat in a worship service in Verviers, Belgium.
The deadly attacks on March 22 were fresh on our minds, and we were planning to leave the next day. The plans were for us to leave early Monday morning and travel by train to Liege, Belgium. There we would catch a train to Frankfurt, Germany, where we had hotel accommodations arranged for the night before our Tuesday flight home. My emotions were mixed, as they had been all week — glad to leave but also sad.
The sermon that Jean Marie Frerot preached was in French, but I totally understood the message. The lesson was a message of LOVE. A message of LOVE in response to the awful events that his fellow Belgians had suffered. LOVE that Christ had for us and LOVE that the Lord had to endure the crucifixion.
APRIL 3, 10:23 p.m.
Billy (Smith), minister of the Henderson Church of Christ, preached tonight about understanding tragic events. We really can’t; we just put our faith in God, and we know where all the evil comes from.
Every night I have dreamed about trains and students. I have a lot of students, and I’m trying to get them somewhere. We have to walk, then catch trains, then walk some more. We don’t stop traveling. Tonight, I’m hoping I dream calm dreams, and if we travel, I hope our trip is smooth.
I still dream about trips and trains…