Nidhi Chaphekar lay motionless, afraid to move, on the floor of the departures hall of Brussels’ Zaventem Airport after it had been hit by twin blasts.
In the hours and days after the suicide bombings, the flight attendant’s image – picked up by international media outlets around the world – would sum up the horror and tragedy of the attack.
Wednesday marks a year since the blasts shook Brussels airport followed by explosions at a metro station in the city; 32 people were killed and over 300 more were injured. ISIS would later claim responsibility for both.
Back in Brussels, one year on, Chaphekar is a far cry from the dazed woman slumped on an airport chair, bra and stomach exposed, her yellow Jet Airways blazer ripped away.
Recalling the deadliest terror attack in Belgian history, the flight attendant remembers preparing for a routine flight to Newark, New Jersey. She had flown in from Mumbai the day before.
“I saw the first human suicide bomb attack but I couldn’t figure out what it was,” she tells CNN. “It looked as if something exploded … I always thought it had to be a wheelchair with lithium batteries.”
Her immediate reaction was to offer help, but a colleague held her back.
“Within those moments, those few seconds, while we were talking – the crowd started running towards all directions … those who couldn’t find the exit in that chaos, they were rushing towards us, the cries, people started screaming.”
Looking for an escape route, she turned towards the towering bird-like Olivier Strebelle statue in the departure hall’s center. Then another blast hit.
“I flew a few meters maybe,” 41-year-old Chaphekar says. “I landed on my legs and then I collapsed … that’s how I got a full cut behind my head.”
She tried desperately to move but the trauma was too intense.
“I looked but I couldn’t see anything because of the smoke so I kept telling [myself] ‘Nidhi, sit down, move!’ It was so bad, my legs were, that I was unable to move.”
As a soldier ran past her, Chaphekar cried out for assistance. With his help, she flopped onto a plastic chair. Her face streaked with blood, she was badly burned and had a severe foot injury.
Her first aid training kicked in, she grabbed at her chest in search of her security lanyard to use it as a makeshift tourniquet, but it had come away.
“I wanted to stop the bleeding of my left leg … that’s the reason my leg was on top of that arm rest, I was trying to push my leg to stop the bleeding.”
While she waited for emergency responders to arrive, she offered support to survivors passing her.
To this day, she retains this comforting manner as she explains: “I was showing hope that we have survived, we will survive.”
Two and a half hours later, she was wheeled into a hospital in Antwerp, where doctors conducted an initial assessment. They pressed down on her organs to check functionality and inquired about her pain levels.
Answering all their questions, she offered her husband Rupesh’s contact details for their home back in Mumbai and asked them to inform her family. She knew news of the attacks would have reached India and was concerned her children, a 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, would be scared.
The following day on March 23, she was airlifted just over 50 kilometers south of Brussels to the Grande Hopital de Charleroi, where she would recuperate further before departing to India.
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Her first goal: Stay awake
For nine hours after the blasts, her loved ones were clueless about her condition or whereabouts. The only thing keeping them going: the photograph.
“In those nine hours only that picture gave hope to my kids,” she says. “That picture doesn’t show that I’m affected so much. The pictures shows that yes she’s there. She’s alive. She’s sitting. She’s fine. She’ll be given bandages and she’ll be back.”
Throughout her journey to the hospital in Antwerp, her focus had been on staying awake.
Doctors asked her to remove the bracelets on her wrists. Chaphekar had suffered burns to her face and other parts of her body, a fractured foot and had embedded metal all over.
After this, her memory is a blur. Her husband flew out to be at her bedside but for the next 23 days she was placed into a medically induced coma.
“[My] state was deteriorating day by day because of some metal pieces still left [that] looked like bone.”
Related: Faces of fear and hope in Brussels
Emerging from a coma
She says doctors initially struggled to stabilize her condition. In mid-April, she woke up for the first time since the explosions, but she didn’t know who she was.
A few days later on April 18, her memory had returned.
It was shortly after that when she saw the photo for the first time and she says she struck by how defenseless she appeared.
“As an air hostess, we being first aiders for others, I was feeling helpless at that moment, I was unable to help. It was a very awful scenario to accept,” she recalls vividly. “It shows the pain you have, everything.”
The woman behind the photo
The photo had been captured on a phone by Georgian journalist Ketevan Kardava, who had also witnessed the explosions.
In the months since the attacks, the pair connected and when Chaphekar returned to Brussels ahead of the one-year anniversary, Kardava was there to greet her.
“I hugged her. I thanked her,” Chaphekar said happily.
Related: Remembering the Brussels terror attack victims
She says Kardava told her she had taken 11 pictures that day but had little idea of the impact her photo would have.
Originally it had been shared on social media platforms but by the next day it was plastered across newspapers and websites across the world. CNN, like many international outlets, used the photo.
It had become a defining image of the attacks, one that symbolized the shared trauma – the confusion, the chaos and the helplessness – of the situation.
The journey to recovery has been a long and difficult process, but in her resilient way, Chaphekar humbly says she has simply faced each obstacle one at a time.
“There were hardships. I was unable to walk … I tried different solutions for the problems. Every day was a new problem. But I said ‘No, I have to handle it.’”
She still has a few surgeries to go but Chaphekar is a determined woman hopeful that she will one day be cleared to return to the skies.
“It’s my passion,” she brightly says of working as a flight attendant, continuing “I don’t want to be a hindrance in the safety of others. [If] I’m medically fit, I would want to fly.”
Related: A tale of two Brussels
Returning to Brussels
As Belgium marks one year since the terror attacks with a memorial service at Zaventem airport on Wednesday morning, Chaphekar and her husband will be there standing alongside other survivors and grieving families. While conflicted about her feelings, as always, she chooses to focus on the positive.
“I look at it in this way to give hope to others that life is a case of ups and downs. It is like a roller coaster – you will be up, you will be down. It moves fast, it moves slow,” she says.
“I want to tell people that alone you cannot survive. You need a person. Our survival depends on each others’ survival. We need to plant the seeds of love and compassion. We need to water them with faith and relationships. And reap the beautiful fruits of peace and prosperity.”