Caroline Leruth doesn’t have medical training. But when the pharmaceutical executive from Raleigh, North Carolina, heard bombs exploding at the Brussels Zaventem Airport last Tuesday, she sprung into action, channeling life-saving tactics drawn from watching her favorite television show, NCIS.
“In a fraction of a second you turn on ‘hyper mode,’ ” Leruth, 52, tells PEOPLE. “All your senses are heightened. You see much farther and more than you would under normal circumstances. Your hearing and sense of smell are much more fine-tuned.”
Leruth, who claims both Belgian and American nationality, was at the airport to fly to Philadelphia when the first explosion occurred. Standing at the American Airlines automatic check-in vestibule, Leruth says she felt a sensation of a blast in her back.
“I knew right then and there that it was a terrorist bomb,” she says.
“A few seconds later, I heard a man shout ‘Get down on the floor! Stay down! Don’t move!’ I imagined it was in case another device exploded, but in my head I was torn between thinking, ‘No, I am not going to stay here if there is the risk of another bomb,’ and my memory of the Paris attacks and the terrorists walking around with Kalashnikovs shooting people who moved.”
She adds, “I listened out for the ‘clack, clack, clack, clack’ of machine guns. Nothing I got up and ran for the exit.”
Leruth, a manager for GlaxoSmithKline, a British pharmaceutical company, says she was near the airport’s exit when she heard the second explosion, which collapsed part of the departures terminal’s ceiling.
“At this point I blanked out. I didn’t lose consciousness, given that I exited the building and all,” says Leruth. “I just don’t have any other memory than the fact that I chose not to go to the parking lot as I suspected there may be another bomb there, and I hid behind a big plant pot outside waiting to see if I would hear the machine gunshots.”
She adds, “It was a miracle that I was not injured. I was standing exactly in the middle of the two blasts.”
Decided to Return to Airport After Seeing a Woman Covered in Blood
Leruth says that after seeing a woman covered in blood, she re-entered the airport and tried to assist six injured victims. Despite not having any formal first aid training, Caroline relied on her common sense and even remembered some of the procedures she had seen on NCIS to assist the people she came across, like providing emotional support and tying tourniquets. Among the wounded were a man who’d lost his left leg and an elderly couple trapped under debris.
Despite the chaos, she remained with the people she assisted until first responders arrived.
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Similarly, Alphonse Youla, a luggage wrapper at the airport originally from the Ivory Coast, tells PEOPLE he tried to assist as many victims as he could in the moments following the blasts.
“There was blood everywhere.. identifiable and non-identifiable body parts were strewn across the area,” Youla says. “I had blood all over me, which I believe much of which was not mine. I became an automat and rushed to the first injured person I saw.”
Tying tourniquets to stop bleeding, Youla employed techniques he had learned as a boy scout, carrying the living and dead through rubble.
“The thought of running off immediately after did not cross my mind. I work at the airport. The place is filled with people I know,” he says.
“I wasn’t and am not afraid, but I cannot get those images out of my mind: I see those martyred bodies so clearly even now. I can hear those early desperate cries for help. At night I lie on my bed and can see and hear them in the darkness. In those moments my heart cries.”
Leruth, too, will never forget the terrifying experience, but says the ordeal helped her appreciate the endurance of the human spirit.
“In those moments, there is a sense of purity, of humanity sharing love,” she tells PEOPLE.
“Despite something so awful having happened there are equally or more good things that occur. Like people holding the hands of the desperately injured, just to make them feel they are not alone.”
Of ISIS, she says, “They are just murderers. Of course they killed innocent people but I don’t think they are achieving anything. I believe in the goodness and strength of humanity because that is what I saw in the airport attack. Nothing can take that away.”