In the three agonising hours at Brussels airport after a bomb exploded just metres away from him, Amit Motwani took selfies for the first time, pictures of his surroundings, and of his left leg which had a bloodied round hole in the ankle. “What if I died? At least my phone would show my final moments to my family, or so I thought,” Motwani says, a year after the 2016 Brussels bombings in which 32 were killed and over 300 injured.
In the past year, Motwani (33) has grown a beard that he could never afford as an in-flight supervisor. He has immersed himself in writing and filmmaking. He has penned a book that is set to be published and a documentary is in the pipeline. Next month, he plans a trip to Kerala to learn martial arts. His medical papers are under scrutiny at the Director General of Civil Aviation, so he is expected to get permission to join Jet Airways soon.
“After the attack, I was bedridden for over 80 days in hospital, and I spent the time thinking. I have one more shot at life, I thought, so let’s make use of it. I regretted not pursuing my interests,” he says. He plans to try theatre, acting and filmmaking.
But he is wary. “When you have a near death experience, you don’t want to plan too many things.” Motwani worked in aviation for 13 years until March 22, 2016, 7.58 am, when the Islamic State triggered three bombings in Zaventem airport and Brussels metro stations. “When the first blast happened, I told my colleague: ‘let’s go to a safer area’.” Nine seconds later, the second blast crashed the ceiling, sending them flying in opposite directions. Motwani remained conscious, and felt no pain immediately. Surprised he was alive, he crawled to a chair and called his girlfriend, a Jet Airways colleague, and then his family. “No one could believe I was in a blast and alive,” he says. He did not know that one splinter had pierced his right eye, another his left ear, there was a hole in his left ankle, his face was superficially burned and so was his torso. He hobbled around to look for Nidhi Chapekar, his colleague, but was soon driven by army personnel in a different direction.
“I didn’t feel any pain so I thought I was okay. I started helping the other injured reach the evacuation area,” he says. With children in shock, people crying, blood all around and the smell of human flesh nauseating him, he took to a corner to get a grip. It was cold and security women were handing over their neck scarves to those injured. On the freezing tarmac, he attempted to remove his contact lenses. “A security guard stopped me, said don’t touch it, it’ll come out,” Amit remembers. That’s when the pain in his right eye registered. “I thought — I need to take a selfie,” he smiles. He saw his punctured eye and was not sure if he would survive the day.There was a third bomb somewhere at the airport that was defused. And Motwani was put onto a bus full of injured and dead people after three hours. He saw a woman who was behind him at the airport, dead, wrapped in white sheet.
When he reached the hospital, hope flickered in him. He had made it this far. The doctors sliced away his prized uniform. “I was heartbroken, it was handed over to the FBI,” he says. But he started flirting with nurses then, smiling and cracking jokes, taking selfies with them. “That was what kept me going.” Distraction was his tool to forget pain and worry over Nidhi’s whereabouts. He posted a Facebook status, “Darne ki baat nahi hai, abhi to hum zinda hai, (Don’t worry, I am alive)” which he says is a dialogue from a Feroz Khan movie. His brother Sachin and cousin Sunil flew to Brussels the next day. At the ZNA Middelheim hospital in Antwerp, he underwent 12 surgeries.
Six intricate surgeries sliced through his eye. His delicate retina could detach anytime leading to vision loss. His surgeries, of leg, of eye and to remove shards, were back to back. When the first shrapnel were removed, the FBI took them away for forensic tests. Motwani later told the doctor to save some shrapnel that would come out in the coming surgeries. “I have a tiny collection of it,” he winks.
He claims he was saved because the doctors and nurses spent days and nights to treat him. Sometimes, emergency surgeries would be called. One happened when his retina had detached. In June 2016, he returned to Mumbai to a disbelieving family. “Until they saw me walking, it was hard for them to believe I was fine.” A few months later he lost his father, already a patient of stress, after a sudden fall and month-long hospitalisation. The year 2016, he says, “was a mess”. Specially for his mother, who suffered the pain of seeing a son recuperate after a terror attack and the death of her husband.
His book, a personal account, has 12 chapters on aviation and the Brussels attacks. Until last year, his legs had grown thin, so walking was a difficult prospect. Two weeks ago he started morning jogs. There is a vigour to live. He has regained 70 per cent of his vision, surprising doctors who expected only a 10 per cent recovery. Looking at him, it is difficult to guess his eye was ever damaged. His once punctured eyes sparkle, he wants to get back to movies. He shows a screenshot of Munnabhai MBBS, in which he did a cameo and spoke three lines when he was 17.
He is excited to return to Jet Airways too. Laughing, he remembers how he had fought for the Mumbai-Brussels flight that landed him at Brussels airport. A day before the blasts, he had told Nidhi that they’ll have a “blast” as their flight schedule was soon ending, to which Nidhi had replied that they’ll cry when it does. “Be careful what you wish for,” he smiles.