BRUSSELS – Sebastien Bellin, a 6-foot-9 (205-centimeter) giant once celebrated for his skills on the basketball court, is today better known as the man who was photographed lying bloody on the floor of Brussels' main airport after the March 22 bombings.
But as he recovers at the Erasmus Hospital in Brussels, Bellin says he is grateful the picture was taken. It shows him how close to death he was, and reminds him of all the people who helped save his life.
"That picture set off an incredible amount of positivity ... that ultimately ended up with me keeping both my legs, being alive," says Bellin, a former member of the Belgian national team who also played at Oakland University in Michigan. "So is that the determining factor? No, probably not. But is it one of the factors? Absolutely."
It's almost as if he feels everyone around the world who saw the photo was pulling for him.
"People in general are good people. They see somebody suffering, they see somebody in obvious pain, well, the first instinct is: 'Man, I hope they are going to be OK,'" says Bellin, who also played professional basketball in Belgium and is a well-known figure in this small country of 11 million. "If you can get collectively a massive amount of people that think that, I'm pretty sure that does something to the overall outcome."
The 37-year-old resident of Battle Creek, Michigan, who now works for a sports video company, had been in Belgium on business and was on his way home on the day of the attack. He had just checked in for his flight when the first blast went off. At first there was darkness. He started to run, and the second explosion threw him into the air. He remembers hitting the ground.
"The first thing I noticed was my hip," he says. "I remember a huge ball of kind of bone and flesh just kind of sticking out of my hip."
From that point on he said to himself he had to get out of there — but his legs wouldn't cooperate. He couldn't move.
"At one point, somebody came and dragged me to behind the column where the famous picture was taken," he says. "So I was holding my one leg, which was almost detached from my body, and they were grabbing me, they were pulling me with my other arm. I can remember the pain."
A military medic applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding in one leg. Later, another passenger tied one on the other.
He ended up losing 50 percent of his blood, but he remained conscious throughout and kept pushing for treatment. A triple helping of pasta carbonara the night before had kept his blood sugar up, preventing him from passing out.
Police had cordoned off the attack zone, fearing another attack. Eventually, Bellin was placed on a luggage cart and pushed out of the cordon. After insisting he needed to go, he kept asking to be pushed to the front, to get out of the airport.
"It's that survival instinct," he says. "You want to push yourself in the front of the line."
Now Bellin is using that positive attitude to rebuild his life. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "win the day," he says he's focused on two things: rehabbing his shattered legs and spending more time with his wife and two daughters.
"The hardest part is not on me, it's on my family, it's on my loved ones who saw that picture," he says.
Back home in Michigan, his wife Sara was getting their daughters ready for school on March 22 when friends started messaging. She signed on to her computer and turned to the news, only to be confronted with the image of her husband, blood and debris beneath him, his legs splayed awkwardly in front.
"I lost it," she says, now sitting on the hospital bed next to that of her husband, whose left leg is propped up on pillows, the sheet thrown aside to reveal the traction.
Bellin occasionally shifts his massive shoulders by pulling on a triangular trapeze suspended above the bed, trying to get comfortable as he recounts the events.
Family members blanch — some hearing the details for the first time. His father Jean, the family rock, has crossed his arms across his chest and seems to be hanging on for dear life. Sara recoils as the gruesome truth is described. Jean's wife, Lisa, reaches out to comfort her.
And yet as Bellin talks, there is optimism. He was close to death and he survived. Can it get better than that?
He plans to keep drawing on his experience as a professional athlete and talks about game plans. He can't wait for rehab. If the doctors tell Bellin he needs six weeks to heal, he says, he'll do it in four. The motivation is to prove them wrong.
Bellin now wants to take the positives out of an unfortunate turn events.
"When you fill your mind with nothing but positives ... death just skips over you," he says.