ST. GEORGE — One year after surviving a March 22, 2016, bombing attack in Brussels, Belgium, 21-year-old Joseph “Dres” Empey, of Santa Clara, recounts his experience and the impact it has had on his life.
In the year since the attack, Empey said he has made a full recovery both physically and emotionally.
“Looking back, I don’t think I would change anything,” Empey said. “Even though the experience, it was an experience that had a lot of negatives to it – the fact that people lost their lives, I wish didn’t happen – but everything else that happened, to me personally, I’m happy it happened. The positives all outweighed the negatives.”
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Although Empey has proven to be resilient through his recovery, at times, he said he grappled with anxiety and nightmares.
“The two weeks after the attacks, I was anxious, had these scary dreams (and) I had this very unrealistic fear that people from ISIS were going to try and target me because I had survived,” Empey said. “I realized this was unrealistic, but for some reason, I felt like it was going to happen. At some point, I had realized it was something that was out of my control. If it were to happen … I can’t control that, and I decided to let it go.”
Empey had been serving as a missionary for one year and nine months for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Paris, France, mission when the ISIS terrorist attack occurred at the Brussels Zaventem Airport, killing 16 people and injuring hundreds more.
On the day of the attack, Empey and two other missionaries were at the airport’s check-in hall accompanying a fourth missionary, who was on her way to a mission assignment in Ohio.
“It was just another normal day as a missionary, helping out other missionaries,” Empey recalled. “We got in the baggage check-in line – we were standing there for only probably three minutes or less – and that’s when the bomb went off.”
The missionaries had been standing in a large square line waiting to get the fourth missionary checked in and sent on her way.
“The bomber was standing in the middle of that square of people and we were in the back of that line about 25 feet away when the bomb went off,” Empey said. “The last thing I remember from the bomb was just a bright orange flash, and then I was knocked unconscious.”
The blast, followed shortly by a second blast, detonated near several check-in desks, sending shockwaves through the terminal and shattering windows of the check-in hall while knocking roof tiles off the ceiling.
“I’m pretty sure I was out for a minute or two and I started waking up and I just remember opening my eyes, laying on my side, and I saw ceiling panels around me,” Empey said. “There was smoke, people laying on the floor, and my ears were ringing super bad. And I stood up. At first, I wasn’t sure what was going on, but as I put the pieces together in my head, I realized that a bomb had gone off and this was a terrorist attack.”
Empey looked around for the other missionaries as he hid behind a pillar, fearing the possibility of another bomb or a gunman. After which, he said he saw the front doors of the building in front of him and ran out of them.
He soon realized he had burns on his hands and face and some soreness in his legs.
“After another 15 minutes, this pain became super intense and I realized that my legs were injured as well,” Empey said. “Later, the paramedics started to cut off my pants and saw these big shrapnel wounds in my legs, like these holes.”
The four missionaries were in proximity of the explosion and all four were subsequently hospitalized as a result of their injuries.
It took Empey approximately three months of working with medical professionals to recover physically from the attack, he said.
Once his physical wounds were healed, Empey bravely returned to Brussels with his family to the scene of the terror in order to complete his psychological and emotional recovery.
As a whole, experiencing the attack has had a significant impact on his life, Empey said, noting that the people who helped him at the airport and the people around the world who prayed for him and sent messages of encouragement made him want to be a better person.
“All of these things have made me want to give more love to the people around me, serve those around me and just be a better person in general,” Empey said, adding that the attack contributed greatly to his plans to become a paramedic and work as a firefighter in Las Vegas or St. George.
Empey said he was disheartened to hear of the terrorist attack that occurred on London’s Westminster Bridge Wednesday which left multiple people dead after an attacker drove into pedestrians on the pavement.
“If I could talk to those people who were affected, I would hope that they could move past it,” Empey said. “I would hope that they could find positive things that come from the experience and forget about negative things or just move on from those negative things – learn from them and then move on.”
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