The bombings that ripped through Brussels on Tuesday, 21 March 2016, shocked Belgium and sparked an outpouring of support for the dozens of victims who were killed or injured.
Among those badly hurt were three American Mormon missionaries, all from Utah: Elders Richard Norby, Joseph Empey, and Mason Wells. (All are expected to recover, and a fourth, Sister Fanny Rachel Clain, was hospitalized with minor injuries.)
The name of one of the missionaries in particular — 19-year-old Mason Wells — caught the attention of the media, because he had been affected by two other terror attacks as well: Paris and Boston. The teen’s third brush with terrorism prompted headlines, articles, and speculation over whether he was the luckiest or the unluckiest person in the world.
However, while Wells’ presence at all three events appears to be a terribly unlucky set of coincidences, it isn’t as wildly improbable as it might initially seem based on headlines (“Brussels attacks: Teenager also survived Boston and Paris bombings”) and articles that implied Wells was in the middle of each:
Wells, a 19-year-old from Sandy, Utah, is expected to make a full recovery from the bombing attack Tuesday, which left him with a surgery scar, severed Achilles tendon, head gash, shrapnel injuries and severe burns.
“This is his third terrorist attack,” Chad Wells, Mason’s father, told ABC News. “We live in a dangerous world and not everyone is kind and loving.”
In Belgium, Wells was standing within feet of a bomb that exploded at the airport. Three years ago, Wells and his father felt the ground shake and narrowly escaped death from an April 2013 attack in the U.S., when a pressure-cooker bomb exploded a block away from where they were watching his mother run the Boston Marathon.
Last November, the young man was just outside Paris when terrorists blew themselves up and shot up Parisian cafes and a concert hall, killing 130 people.
“Hopefully he’s run his lifelong odds and we’re done,” said Chad Wells about the oldest of their five children. “I think it will make him a stronger person.”
On a closer reading, Wells’ proximity to each of these events was noteworthy but not as dramatic as headlines made it sound.
The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing killed three people, wounded at least 260, and caused widespread panic, but the bombings were located in one small, central area. The marathon is a huge event that draws hundreds of thousands of people to the city every year (23,181 people ran in the 2013 event, including his mother, Kymberly Wells). He was close to, but not in, the bombing area, as were at least 500,000 other spectators, each close enough to hear the explosion (or, at least, the response to it).
Wells’ link to the Boston Marathon bombings is interesting, but it is misleading to call him a survivor of the attacks rather than someone who was simply close by when they occurred. The same is true of his purported involvement in the Paris bombings in November 2015, a series of coordinated attacks which killed 130 people (including 89 at the Bataclan Theater) and injured 368. Wells was in France at the time of the attacks, but not in, or even very near, Paris:
Chad Wells says he and his son were only a block from the Boston marathon bombing in 2013. They went to watch his wife run the race. None of them was injured, but they felt the ground shake.
The younger Wells also was two hours away from Paris during a series of attacks in the city last November.
“Two hours” away is not very specific, but it’s clear that whether it was a matter of dozens or hundreds of miles, Wells was far enough away from the attacks that (like the Boston bombing, but unlike the Brussels bombing, in which he was wounded) he couldn’t be classified as a survivor, or even someone who was in the immediate vicinity at the time. Rather, he was someone who was in a country at the same time that it was shaken by a series of shocking and traumatic events that occurred within a 33-mile radius, two hours away from him (which is about the same amount of time it takes to drive from Tijuana, Mexico to San Bernardino, California, or from Toronto, Canada, to Buffalo, New York).
It’s human nature to seek patterns and to feel involved in an event that you were relatively near or recently visited, especially where terrorist attacks are concerned, which — thanks to the internet and round-the-clock network news coverage — feel far closer and more imminent than they might have even twenty years ago. But rather than serve as a reminder that today’s world is a “dangerous and hostile place”, as Wells’ father said, his presence near the first two attacks could also show that even the largest and most destructive terrorist attacks occur over a very limited space, and that their primary objective is to create an atmosphere of constant fear, wariness, and uncertainty.
While terrorism is undeniably frightening and unpredictable by design, the fear that these attacks create is (also by design) statistically far out of proportion to the death, destruction, and misery that they bring.