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Bomb scare: ‘We evacuated. But we were not prepared…’

When the European Banking Federation (EBF) held its annual summit at the National Bank, in Brussels, an alarm went off. And then another. And then another. In this exclusive account for ami magazine, EBF senior events coordinator Tina Marolt describes what happened next…

After ten years as an event planner, I thought I had seen it all. But that changed on 28 September 2018, when my event, the European Banking Summit, had to be evacuated.

All planners know the feeling: after so much hard work, everything finally comes together. Lights go down. The opening speaker comes on stage. The venue goes silent and, when you look around, you see your dreams come alive. All your hard work and sleepless nights are forgotten. This is it.

But then an alarm clock goes off at the back of the auditorium.

Minutes pass and the alarm still beeps. Heads start to turn. The auditorium is dark, and the fixed seating makes it hard to search. The panel on stage continues, but it’s clear that the audience is distracted. The alarm stops.

A few minutes later another one goes off.

The suspect devices

A colleague pushes two devices into my hands. They are wrapped in black duct tape. Before my mind can process what I am looking at, another alarm clock goes off, this time on the other side of the room. Soon I am holding four clocks in my hand. And then a fifth alarm goes off close to the stage where four CEOs are discussing the future of banking. Former Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem, our keynote speaker, is still in the building giving a live interview to CNBC.

A series of ‘suspect devices’ have been planted in the auditorium, left behind by an ‘unfriendly party’. Are we the target? Or the national bank? Could it be related to the 10th anniversary of the financial crisis? We don’t know, but there are 300 people in the room and we decide to evacuate.

Raymond Frenken, our head of communications, takes a few deep breaths and walks on stage. He invites everyone to get up and leave the building and wait outside. It is a calm evacuation.

Delegates leave the auditorium via the steps to the ground floor, where they use the revolving door to leave the building. There they wait for the police and for further announcements. Within 10 minutes the auditorium is empty.

By now the authorities are informed and a few minutes later police sirens are heard all around the building. Half a dozen or so police vehicles arrive, with sniffer dogs, while the de-mining squad is on its way. The street is closed off. It’s clear this is being treated as a serious incident, under co-ordination of the federal police. Broadcasters, including VRT and Euronews, set up a live camera at the end of the street.

What happened next is a wonderful story of resilience, made possible by the entire team at the EBF.

As the police worked to secure the auditorium, we had 300 delegates and VIPs out on the streets in the centre of Brussels. It was cold, but dry. Their coats were still inside, and we were told the police investigation could take some time.

At 11am we announced that the conference would continue at the EBF offices, where we have a small meeting centre. While most of the EBF’s team started preparing the venue, a second team accompanied participants on the 20-minute walk, while the third team stayed at the national bank to help with the investigation and make sure our delegates’ belongings are returned.

Delegates walk to EBF headquarters

With the support of an excellent team and willing participants, the event ended successfully. The meeting room was fully packed and, with just a 90-minute delay, the event continued as planned. Everyone was reunited with their belongings at the end of the day Not a single item was lost. The day felt like a success! Everyone was impressed by how we handled the situation and, luckily for us, the devices were fake, designed only to disrupt.

It was only when I arrived home that I began to realise how unprepared – and how lucky – we had been. Who? How? When? Why? Later, while reviewing the steps we took, we realised there had been many mistakes. We had no security in place. People could register on the spot, just by writing their name on the list. We actually did not know where the emergency door was! Using a revolving door during an evacuation showed we had not thought this through. We did not check the cloakroom, VIP room and bathrooms. What if someone had been trapped inside?

We learned a lesson. I learned a lesson. You can never be fully prepared. But with new knowledge and by sharing your experience you can improve things and help others improve as well. Our events have changed now – with better preparation and security. Everyone needs to be pre-registered and no on-site registration is allowed. Delegates can collect their badge only with an ID and all go through a visual security check. Meeting rooms and connected areas are requested to be locked the day before. When an event starts, we tell everyone where the exits are and who they should talk to in case they have any questions or concerns.

Tina with police sniffer dogs

 

It saddens me that some of the questions from that day will probably not be answered. Who and why remains an assumption. As an event planner, I changed. I felt responsible. Dealing with mistakes that could have been fatal was very hard. But I will never think I am well prepared again. But at least now I know I have done “hopefully” everything in my power to keep my delegates safe