“No taste stays with you” is something I've heard more than once.
But from what I experienced recently, the taste of Coca-Cola stays with you forever.
It was 90 minutes before my flight from Atlanta to Brussels on March 22. Just after 6 a.m., a crew member offered me a vegetarian breakfast. I politely declined and remember expressing a preference to eat at the lounge in Brussels. Little did I know what awaited me.
I was one of many passengers stranded in the Brussels Airport during the horrific bombing. Adding to the chaos, I lost my phone in Atlanta and landed in Brussels with no means of contact.
We landed in Brussels about 7:45 a.m. when we heard the first explosion. It startled all of us, but we kept moving. When we heard the second explosion, unrest in the aircraft began to build. To our disbelief, the pilot announced that the airport had been bombed. Understandably, the flight was not allowed to reach the terminal. After spending an hour on the runway, we were redirected to a remote place where we parked for another hour. The only thought I had was that I needed to contact my wife and my office to let them know I was okay.
I asked a co-passenger if I could use his phone. He was equally worried, and there was no network coverage available on his phone. In fact, no one was able to make calls sitting inside the aircraft.
A Brussels Airport Authority representative boarded the aircraft and asked us to evacuate the flight and board an airport shuttle. When we walked down in the biting cold, I realized I was wearing only a t-shirt. The shuttle was quite warm, but the comfort was short-lived. After 10 minutes, all shuttles stopped and we were asked to walk along with hundreds of other passengers. Walking in sub-zero temperatures in a thin t-shirt was a real experience for someone like me who was born in a tropical climate.
The good news was the phone network was back up. I quickly borrowed a phone and called my wife, Sindhu (the only number I could remember). I could sense she was terrified, as I was not traceable for almost three hours. She knew I had landed in Brussels, but had no idea if I was safe. It was such a sense of relief and joy. While I was talking to her, I realized there was another person who was equally worried and frantically trying to trace me. It was my colleague, Sameer, who by then had called my wife a few times.
Fortunately, I was carrying my travel phone with a U.S. SIM card. I asked my wife to contact Sameer to help activate the SIM for international roaming so it could be used. I got a call from Sameer in 45 minutes. Our chat gave me so much comfort. I was touched by the efforts put in at the office to trace me. Priyanka Bisht, our communications colleague, called some friends and found that the crew on the flight I was to take from Brussels usually stayed in a particular hotel. The team contacted the crew and even spoke with the captain. This was the first sense of a true extended family.
The next thing I did was inform my friend in Strategic Security at Coca-Cola, Fernando, who constantly followed up with my team in Delhi on my whereabouts.
It was a good 45-minute walk in the cold before we reached an aircraft hangar wher we joined at least 1,000 stranded passengers. My first thought was it was really chaotic. No one knew what would come next. Interestingly, in no time, the volunteers provided bottled water, food and a first-aid center. A team from the Red Cross distributed blankets as it was still cold inside the hangar. There was also a team from the Red Cross on hand to provide counseling. The Brussels government was in action!
Back in India, my Coca-Cola team was in action, too. Sameer had called couple of times and sent more than a dozen text messages. I was conferenced with a crew member for a first-hand update on the connecting flight, and I was registered at the Indian Embassy at Brussels. Through all this, we gathered that the airport would be closed for the next few days, and that no decision had been taken on the transit passengers. I mentally prepared for a long stay in Brussels, and I knew that not having a Schengen visa had limited my ability to venture out in the city and check into a hotel. Meanwhile, our communications head, Ishteyaque Amjad, spoke to my wife and assured her that everyone in the company was trying their best to get me out of Brussels. Sindhu was relieved that my office was in constant touch with me. At the same time, my colleagues had reached out to her for support, as well.
The evening was very cold at the hangars. The authorities decided to shift us to an army camp at a sports complex at Brabanthal in the outskirts of Brussels. This was a well-planned setup managed by the Red Cross. It was an awesome sight as thousands of us stayed together, ate together, and slept under one roof irrespective of the differences in cultural orientation and religious beliefs. I can easily say it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Our HR head put us in touch with the Brussels team. Despite such a major issue at hand, the team said they would do the best they could. Our Legal VP and other colleagues reached out to more people. Margriet Lindemans, the HR head in Brussels, was the first to reach out to me from the local team.
The whole Coca-Cola system across borders was coming together. For the first time in 48 hours, I was able to connect to my email. Only then could I realize that as many as 20 associates were directly involved and coordinating my safe exit. Finally, the long day ended with some vegetarian food and a nice chat with my friend from Ghana.
A call from my business unit president, Venkatesh Kini, the next morning brought an instant smile on my face. He had just called me to ensure I was in good spirits.
I was badly in need of warm clothes and a charger as I hadn't planned for such a pit stop. The Brussels office delivered a care package with a jacket, charger and goodies. My friend and Brussels-based Coca-Cola colleague, Wouter Vermeulen, met me at the camp with a beautiful care package sent by his office. This instance of the Brussels office going through its own pain but willing to help is the mark of a great culture.
After a few hours, news started finally trickling in of a final evacuation plan, and all JET airways passengers were moving to Amsterdam. It was a three-hour drive, and we reached Amsterdam at 8 p.m. By then, Sameer and Els had called few times. Finally, I was able to catch up with some good sleep after almost none over the last two days.
JET airways announced that the flight to Delhi would leave at 4 p.m. on March 23. I could see the joy and satisfaction in the hotel as the ordeal was coming to an end. Finally, I landed at 5 a.m. on March 24 in Delhi. I was the first one to come out of the airport. Sameer and Sindhu were at the airport to greet me. It was an extraordinary moment of joy.
Such events make us really grounded and give new perspective on life. Most importantly, I experienced the real taste of Coca-Cola, a great feeling of being a part of an extended family. “A great place to work” is not just a moniker. It's a reflection of values that are shared, which means that associates from three countries worked together to track, monitor and safely bring me back home to India. It was a true display of what a wonderful family we all are.
Atul Rajbhushan is senior manager of Public Affairs & Communications, Coca-Cola India & South West Asia.