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Resilient And Hopeful – 2016 Brussels Attack Survivor Nidhi Chaphekar Is An Unbroken Hero

Posted: February 28, 2020

Since 2016, Nidhi Chaphekar has lost a number of things but what she hasn’t lost is her hope and resilience. With the launch of her memoir, she tells us why.

Hope seems to be a common factor in Nidhi Chaphekar’s life- one of the survivors of the 2016 Brussels terror attack, she is back on her feet now and with a determination to live her life to the fullest!

Life has thrown one curveball after another at her, but it hasn’t stopped her from going forward with determination.

She says, “While I was in Brussels, I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I knew it was happening to me for a reason. I wasn’t supposed to be on that flight but I remember almost fighting to be on it. It was like a sign from God or something.”

The worst day of her life

On March 22, 2016, Nidhi was at the Zaventem airport, Brussels. She was the cabin manager for Jet Airways, getting ready to fly to the US. Everything seemed normal when she took the escalator instead of the lift, when a large explosion flung her off her feet.

She was unconscious for what seemed like hours to her. And when she came to, she found her clothes and shoes burnt, and her face streaked with blood. She checked her watch and realised it had stopped exactly at the time when the bomb had exploded.

After some help from an airport staff member, she managed to sit on a chair. Her legs felt numb, her face and hands hurt and she was shocked. It was exactly where she was sitting when the Georgian photojournalist took her picture. The picture that went viral almost immediately showed Nidhi sitting- dazed and injured, her bright yellow Jet Airways jacket visible under a layer of dust. It was this picture that made her the face of the Brussels terror attack.

How her family found out

And it was the same picture, that for the next ten hours or so, assured her family that she may have been injured but she was alive. They were in Mumbai, worried sick when they heard about the attack, or incident as the family now calls it. 

After hours of sitting there, she was finally taken on a stretcher to a hangar where they were treating patients.

“I remember being put on a stretcher with two tags on my foot- these tags were used to identify the gravity of your injuries. By this time, I wasn’t sure how grievously injured I was, but I was in a lot of pain. They’d put the tags on my leg, and I didn’t want them to miss it. So, I pulled on them and put them on my chest, lest they miss it. I don’t remember what happened most of the after part till my husband came to see me.”

It would take her months to heal

In the month that followed, she had to have 23 surgeries for which she was put in a medically induced coma. It would take months for her to stand on her own feet, let alone walk, but this did not crush her spirit.

The doctors found several pieces of metal all over her body- the largest one being in her foot due to which she’d lost all sensation there. She even had a piece in her eye and burns all over her face and arms. These required skin grafts to be put in from her thighs. Due to the sound and her proximity to the bomb, one of her eardrums has a hole in it too. She still hears a loud hum inside her ear which leads to awful migraines.

Nidhi doesn’t remember much of what happened when she was taken to the hospital, except answering some questions.

‘I felt different’

“After I was pulled out of the coma, I felt like I were in a completely different place, as a different person. My husband was by my bedside, but I couldn’t recognise him. He was a complete stranger to me. Neither did I recognise my other family members. He cried in joy when I opened my eyes, but I was numb to it all.”

She finally regained her memory more than 48 hours later. In a sense of urgency told a nurse that she had to see her husband because she had been in a terror attack. That’s when the nurse informed her that her family had been there for the past month.

“I realised just how long I’d been unconscious. And when I saw my husband, I started to finally cry. I didn’t cry because of what I’d been through but because of what I’d put everyone through. My children had their exams and my family had to fly all the way here for me,” she says recollecting her days in the hospital.

‘My family is my biggest strength’

When her husband told her it was thanks to the image that Ketevan Kardava took of hers that they knew she was fine, she wanted to see the image. On seeing it, she felt a number of emotions- embarrassment and sadness among them She did not want the picture to be circulated the way it was. Nidhi was afraid that her family and children will be affected by it. However, that wasn’t the case. Her kids were told that their mom is brave. A lion-heart and a tigress.

“In the past few years, my children have taught me a lot and given me a lot of strength. They went through a lot more than I did for they weren’t sure if their mom would ever be back. After the surgery, I spoke to them over video call and they were so delighted to see me! I couldn’t wait to go back home to them.

“Since then, my kids and I have become even closer. They tell me every day how much I inspire them and how I am such a strong person,” she told me.

How she is unbroken

Nidhi recently published a memoir of her life since the attacks, writing down everything she could remember about it. Initially, she started maintaining in a notebook only for herself- writing details down as and when she remembered them.

Slowly the whole story started unravelling for her. Sometimes, she says, she’d write something down but correct it soon because she’d remember something else. Her story became her reason to do something every day.

It was while she was writing in her own journal that her husband suggested she turn it into a book for everyone to read and take inspiration from. “I wrote as and when I remembered things and I really didn’t think anyone would want to read my story. There was nothing inspiring or great there. What I wrote was for my own self. But when my husband read a part of it, he encouraged me to actually start writing and get it published.” With her husband and her mother behind her, she decided to finally publish her memoir titled ‘Unbroken.’

The memoir is like a closure

Nidhi says since she gave her mother one of the first few copies, she has read it over 20 times and every time she reads it, her mother feels a surge of emotions about her daughter’s strength and resilience. “Every time my mother reads the book, she calls me and tells me how scared they were when they heard of the incident. In some ways, my memoir is a closure for all of us. Each time, I feel like things aren’t going right or my way, I try to pick it up and read it. It helps me get a new perspective.”

The attack happened almost four years ago and Nidhi’s physical scars may have healed but the emotional and mental ones still stay, yet every day, she gets out of bed with a determination to live life to its fullest.

Reviving Jet is her next aim

Right now, her aim in life is to review the currently non-functioning Jet Airways. “We at Jet were like a big family. So when the airlines went down, a number of us lost our sources of income along with people we’d been working with for years. And while some people did take up other jobs, some of us stayed. Right now, we are trying to hold meetings with the board and hope that they listen to us and maybe we can come to a decision.”

“I have been speaking to a lot of people about my experience and they have also called me a brave-heart, but I don’t feel like one, you know? There are people who go through worse, but the incident has definitely made me realise how short life is and has made me closer to my family. I am more affectionate now,” she says right before signing off.

Though Nidhi may not think of herself as a brave-heart, she definitely has inspired a number of people! Here’s to her strength and resilience.

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Reader, writer and currently an Associate Editor at Women's Web, I survive on coffee

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