That time I got locked inside an abandoned military hospital, twice
Updated: Jul 3, 2021
I was just memory-strolling by reading my old Livejournal page, kept during my Great Big Europe Trip, 2005. I was going to retell the story here of the time I got locked inside an abandoned military hospital in Antwerp not once, but twice. I decided instead to just paste my original telling of the story because it's pretty good. And I'm lazy.
Thursday, July 21st, 2005
12:05 pm - More drama (of my own making), this time in Antwerp
First of all, I must apologize in advance for any bizarre typing mistakes in this and following posts. I am now truly in the Land of the European Keyboard, which is just different enough to really screw you up. In particular, regard misplaced 'q's as 'a's - the q is where the a should be, and I find myself making that mistake the most.
I came to Antwerp the day before yesterday. In part, this was because the Belgian pilot, Henk, with whom I've been corresponding over the past while and who has a hobby of photographing abandoned industrial sites - http://abandoned-places.com - told me that there is a good abandoned military complex and hospital here. One sec, I'll see if I can find the specific link... nope - can't directly link to it. Go to the 2nd photo gallery and click around until you find the military hospital, Antwerp.
So, the place looks absolutely fantastic, as well as dangerous (don't worry, I will be careful, despite what you might think after reading the following experience - put it this way, I have a flashlight. I know, totally prepared). When I arrived in Antwerp in the afternoon, I checked in to the Boomerang Hostel (worth it's own entry - a very cool place), found an internet cafe (50 cents a half hour - very cheap), and looked up Henk's most recent email to me, as he included maps of some promising sites to visit in different parts of Belgium. I was more than pleasantly surprised to see that the military hospital was located literally blocks away (like, 6) from where I was sitting. By this point it was getting a bit late - maybe 6 - and I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt (and didn't have my flashlight with me), but I figured I'd go check it out.
The site is deep in the Jewish section of the city. I can't count the number of big, wide-brimmed black hats, luxurious forelocks, and kids with yarmulkes riding their bikes that I passed as I walked to the site. I found the main gate, no problem, and found it distinctly occupied, with some cars and some new signage ***(see the photo at the top of this page).*** The new signage I couldn't understand - much mention of the word 'HISK' - but the old signage was easy to understand - Military Domain, Entry Forbidden (except in Flemish, which might as well be Dutch). I walked back the way I came, noting that the grounds extended far along behind the building frontage on the street - I could see the tips of trees from the overgrowth. Half a block along, I came to a huge black steel gate with spikes along the top. It was open, and there was nobody around. I walked through it and entered a rather depressing bricked courtyard with an open door to a building on my right (from which I could hear distant voices) and a chain link fence on the far side. On the other side of the fence, the very wild and woolly grounds of the hospital. I stepped forward a bit, and noticed a sizable hole in the chain link. Being the kind of guy I am, I stepped through.
I had to really watch my step, because the whole place was overgrown with stinging nettles and me in a pair of shorts. I was on a kind of perimeter road that skirted the exterior wall (about 12' high, brick). There were 4 storey buildings arranged in a complex inside, all with windows smashed out and a couple with burnt-out rooves. The undergrowth was very thick except for in the very middle of the road, with many bushes and small trees taking root. I walked for a bit, took some pictures, soaked in the frankly spooky ambience, and then the storm started. Not a very heavy one, but the gloom factor stepped up a notch, thunder started grumbling in the distance, and a light rain started falling. I was quite sheltered under the trees, but noted the failing light and resolved to only stay for another 10 minutes or so. I explored a little further, found an overgrown greenhouse, entered a courtyard with black, empty doorways, broken windows, and a profusion of lilacs growing everywhere. Then through the open doors of a one-room out-building and into another overgrown space next to a very large building with no obvious entry. I decided that was enough, it was starting to seriously edge towards twilight with the increasing storm, and I decided discretion was the better part of valour. I made my way back.
I slipped through the hole in the fence, crossed the courtyard, and found the gate closed. And locked. Hm. The door to the building (now on my left) was still open. I looked inside - Hebrew signage on the walls, children's paintings, it felt like a school for young children. Silent. I knocked loudly on the door frame and called out hello; Nothing. I stepped in, tried to see if I could find a door from the ground floor to the street. Nope. No choice but the stairs and to find somebody. I walked up, calling out the whole time. On the second floor there was a hallway, and I could hear some confused female voices coming from an open door at the end of it. I reached the door, still calling hello, and found Helena and Agvina (Agvila?), two Polish (I think) cleaning women in their late 50s, with very little English and a look of surprise and chagrin at my presence. They were friendly enough, at least at first (it soon became apparent though that I was a major inconvenience), and they listened as I tried to explain what happened. I ended with, "...so I would like to get to the street, please." A blank look. "To the street?" I pointed.
Comprehension. "Ah! No."
Slightly incredulous. "No?"
Patiently explaining. "Ah, we here until morning. Ah, boss come, we go."
Really incredulous. "You are locked in," pantomiming the action, "until morning?"
Fuck. "What time does the boss come?"
"Ah, 9 o'clock."
I looked at my watch - 8:40 p.m. I'm looking at over 12 hours stuck in an Orthodox Jewish primary school. "Can we phone the boss?"
"I can pay money for his trouble."
"No, ah, is not possible."
"I see." Pause while all that sinks in. "I can smoke?"
"Smoke? Oh, yes! Smoke."
"Is there water? Drinking water?"
"Drinking...? Ah, no."
"From the tap? Is it okay to drink from the tap?" She shrugged. Conversation over.
I took inventory. I had my trusty day-bag with me, that meant a book, my journal, my freshly-charged mp3 player, a letter I was working on to Lisa - plenty to keep me busy. No food or drink, but I could risk the tap water and maybe the ladies would take pity on me later. The light was failing but still usable, so I quickly took a whack of photos to document the place. Helena had left by that point, but came back after I had taken around 15 photos. She scolded me - no photos. Is private. I apologized and told her I would erase them. Of course, I didn't.
Then I settled into one of the desks in the classroom I had mainly been in up to that point. This was one seat in an affixed row of desks suitable for a 6 year old. Not so good. I had found a styro cup and stole a little bottled water from the collection of open bottles at the front of the class (obviously the pupils' water) to cover the bottom of the cup in half an inch of water - my ashtray. I broke out my journal and started writing.
I had only been writing for about 10 minutes, when a young (20s) Jewish guy walked in. Very orthodox looking, and more than a little perplexed as to why I was there. I explained as best I could, feeling more than a little flustered and worried the whole time that he's going to call the cops or something. After all, I am trespassing. He was very cool, though, and said it was okay, and let me out. I was extremely grateful. We shook hands before parting.
The rest of the evening is worthy of its own entry (and so is yesterday, for that matter), and I'll try and get it down here shortly. That's enough for now, though.
Friday, July 22nd, 2005
8:30 pm - The continuing saga of the military hospital
Yes, I'm still here in Antwerp, and it's all because of the hospital. I'd had just tantalizing glimpses - that first day in the storm, and then also the day before yesterday when I introduced myself at the art college (HISK - it's an acronym) that has taken over part of the grounds and had a good look around as much as I could (again, a day fit for its own entry - Barthold explained the complicated business of casting bronze to me, for example). But apart from that short visit the first day, I still hadn't been able to crack the bulk of the grounds and spend some serious time in the abandoned, derelict part. I spent quite a while reconnoitering over the past couple days and also talked to a number of locals about it, trying to gather as much info as I could. I discovered that the grounds are actually in 3 sections now - HISK (the art college), a single wing run by the military that houses the last few veterans from WWII (and when they all die it will close), and the abandoned part. I had noticed the much more military looking section on my walks around the frankly huge circumference - more military looking in that it was well-kept, had fresh Do Not Enter signs, and had a number of cars parked in the long, rectangular courtyard (including a couple of jeep-y looking vehicles). There are two gates into this courtyard, both very imposing looking in black steel with spikes on top. The first time I saw this area, I immediately wrote it off as being far too official-looking.
Today was my last chance, as I'm definitely leaving tomorrow for Liege (and another abandoned facility). I weighed my options. The art college was pretty much out - I had given their grounds a very careful going over and had come up empty on a way to get over to the other side. I could try and find a student, see if someone going to school there might know some secret way, but that was a long shot. I knew i could get in through the hole in the fence behind the Jewish school, but no way was I going to risk getting stuck in that school again. I considered talking to someone who works there, explain what I wanted to do, maybe offer some money (a little naked bribery never hurts), but again, a long shot. That left the gates to the military section. Now, the night before last I had a fairly lengthy conversation with a slightly creepy Israeli guy who is in the same room as me. Creepy or not, the guy was a font of information. He's been living here for quite a while and has had experience with the hospital - been there a number of times. According to him, people go in there all the time - environmental scientists, students, artists. He said the worst thing that would happen if i got caught would be a fine, but that being a tourist I probably wouldn't even get that. Of course, this was exactly what I wanted to hear.
So, taking all of that into consideration, I decided to try the military gate. Also taken into consideration was the fact that today is a national holiday in Belgium - I figured that meant less people about at a government run facility. I arrived at the smaller of the two gates at around 11. It was shut and locked. My heart plummeted, but I knew there was still the second, larger gate about a half a block away. When I strolled slowly past it, it was open. Not only that, but a second, interior gate that clearly lead into the abandoned part of the complex (and which I hadn't noticed before) was also open. Wide open. I continued past, slowly, then doubled back once I was out of sight. There were cars parked, but not a soul about. This was one of those do-I-or-don't-I moments, a choice, a decision, one with possible consequences. Everything I had considered and thought about and pondered over the past few days collapsed into that instant, and I decided to go for it. I also promised to myself that I would be out of there by 2:00 at the absolute latest - it was highly unlikely that the place would close up for the night before then, even on a holiday.
I believe it's all in the attitude. Chin up, eyes straight ahead, a pace that says I know where I'm going but I'm not in a huge hurry to get there. A clipboard always helps, but of course I didn't have one. Across the narrow courtyard, through the second gate, and I was in.
A wide central road ran straight in from the gate for a distance of about 200 yards. A row of buildings running parallel to the right of the road, and the bulk of the complex to the left. I was startled to notice two people on the road at the far end, unmistakably pushing strollers. I didn't know if they saw me, and I quickly ducked into a side path that ran to the left and into the buildings. Within a few seconds I was screened by trees and overgrown lilac bushes (in full bloom - the place smelled great when you were outside). Ahead of me was a very large gothic-inspired building with huge double wooden arched doors, chained shut. I guessed it was the facility's church. A little bit of searching turned up an open side door, and I went in.
It's hard to describe being inside a place like that, alone, with the wind starting to whip up outside and the crumbling hallways echoing with the distant bangs and crashes of open doors and windows. Also the rustling of birds, the cries of crows and doves transformed into almost human sounds by the repeating echoes in the long corridors, and when the wind was just right, the very distant sound of the Jewish primary school children playing at their lunch hour. You could say eerie, spooky, creepy, and it's all those things. You can feel the lives that have passed through there, not always happy lives. And not only the original inhabitants, but the various vandals, partiers, homeless, and whoever else who has been there before you and left their mark. Poetry in crimson red paint on the windows of a hallway. A soiled, crumpled mattress hung with filthy clothing. Empty beer cans, used condoms. And all of this in the midst of ruin, of furniture overturned, and equipment smashed, and fixtures ripped out, and paint peeling off the walls in ruffled strips of once-garish green to reveal strips of once-garish pink. I climbed an impossibly narrow spiral staircase to enter the balcony of the central hall in the church, cavernous, thundering with reverberation from the slightest sound, completely empty, spattered with pigeon shit.
I took a whack of photos, obviously, and after about 40 minutes, maybe less, I decided to go check on the gate. Just in case. It didn't take me long to reach it and discover that it was closed. And locked. Fuck.
My first thought was that the people with the strollers had seen me, and had shut the gate in the knowledge that I would have to deal with them eventually if I wanted out. Perhaps. The why didn't matter too much. What mattered was that, once again, I was locked inside the grounds of this place. I stepped back from the gate a bit, and thought about it. I had seen that the first gate, the one to the street, was wide open still. To the right of the gate was a row of abandoned buildings that fronted onto the courtyard, with cars parked in front of it. If I could get into that building, there might be window or an unlocked door I could get out of. Worth a try.
Just a few minutes' searching turned up an open door into the building. It was clearly an administration building, with a long row of offices that had windows facing onto the courtyard. I had to try a few doors and make a few turns before I found them, but eventually I found myself in one of the few offices without bars over the windows. I walked over to the row of windows, chose one near an outcropping on the outside of the building (and which, fortuitously, wasn't covered in mangled, askew blinds), turned the handle and pulled. It opened. I only opened it a crack at first, and then hesitated. I could bolt right now, and be content with less than an hour in this place that I've spent so much time getting into, or I could turn around and give myself an hour to do a better job of it. I chose the latter.
It was a tense, freaky hour, and I loved every minute of it. I ended up filling 2 and a half cards that day - over 100 pics, most of them in the highest possible quality format (RAW format). I could describe it at length, but I'll let the pics do that when I manage to get them online. Suffice to say, when I returned to the window it was still open a crack, I hopped through, and decisively strolled my way down the length of the courtyard. Saw nobody, heard nothing. When I reached the street, it was with the biggest surge of adrenaline you can imagine. I made it. Yay for me. :-)
This is the first time I have looked closely at this complex in the present day using Google Earth. I knew that HISK had moved and the site had been developed, so I surprised to see how many of the original buildings they kept and reconditioned.
A - The first gate on the street.
B - The inner gate that was locked.
C - The parking area I jumped into from a window in the far building.
I might have more to say, but Alex just got up unexpectedly early, so I will be turning this computer over to him. Later, perhaps.