June 29, 2023

Survivors of terror attacks reunite - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

Sarri Singer had never been in Israel on the anniversary of “The Day.” Still, a 20-year anniversary cannot be ignored. So Singer is in Jerusalem with her mom Judie Bloom Singer to mark the day she came so close to death.

June 11, 2003. 5 p.m. Rush hour. New Jersey-born Sarri Singer, in Israel to volunteer, boards Bus 14 to meet a friend for dinner. She feels lucky to get on. So many are left behind when the driver shuts the door. They are on Jaffa Road near Mahaneh Yehuda, Jerusalem’s open-air market.

She spots two empty seats on the driver’s side, close to the middle of the bus. She usually opts for an aisle seat, but for no particular reason she sits near the window, her bag on the floor at her feet. The aisle seat is occupied by a young woman, talking to her boyfriend standing in the aisle.

Singer is running late. She’d better call her friend. She bends forward to get her cell phone. Just as she’s zipping the bag shut she hears the boom and is pushed back by a concussive tidal wave. Then silence. One eye swells shut; the other barely opens. She’s burned and bleeding and screaming. A passerby helps her out of the hole in the burning bus. Then she’s speeding in an ambulance to Hadassah-University Medical Center, in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem. She was one of the 100 people injured.

I meet her in the shock trauma center. The lucky ones. There were 17 men and women murdered, including her seatmate and the seatmate’s boyfriend in the aisle.

“That one’s American,” points my colleague Audrey Shimron when we enter the crowded trauma unit.

She says she is from Lakewood. She doesn’t want to frighten her parents. I persuade her to call them; they’ve already heard about the explosion. I offer my cell phone. “I was in a terror attack but I’m okay. I’m at Hadassah Hospital,” she tells them. She mentions that her father Robert Singer is a New Jersey state senator.

“Okay” means she’s absorbed shrapnel in her neck and shoulders. Two pieces lodged in her mouth. Her clavicle is fractured. Her hair and face are burned. Her eardrums have popped. She’s wheeled away for surgery.

TWELVE DAYS in the hospital. Then back to New York, where today she is director of career services at Touro College and the founder of Strength to Strength, an organization to help terror survivors.

“Surviving is just the beginning”

Singer wants to fill the VIP room at Hadassah Medical Center with other survivors from that period. A celebration of survival.

Dvir Musai, a guide at Hadassah Hospital will make the invitation calls. He too is a terror survivor. Dvir wasn’t quite 13 but he already had a teen’s cheeky personality when he reluctantly went on a trip with his class to pick cherries at a farm near his home in Beit Hagai. Sent back to the bus with two other wiseguy classmates, he stepped on the terrorist mine set to murder the cherry farmer. Over his 40 operations, he’s kept in touch with many of the other survivors whom he meets at the hospital.

“Surviving is just the beginning,” says Musai.

Among those who can come is Adi Hudja Peretz. She was 14 in 2001 when she was waiting for her two cousins to get ice cream cones in central Jerusalem. One of the terrorists, on a night of triple attacks killing 10, was standing near her. So much shrapnel entered her petite body that 120 units of blood flowed right through.

Trauma surgeon Avi Rivkind tried an experimental hemophilia drug and the bleeding slowed and stopped. Prof. Iri Liebergall returned to Israel and countermanded the plan to amputate her leg. Many operations have followed, including one just a few months ago. She’s married and a mother of three.

In 2002, CPA Gila Halili Weiss was blown up in the Mahaneh Yehudah market while buying sweet pastries for Shabbat. Alone and unconscious, she was identified because a roommate remembered the color of her recent pedicure. She still has eye problems but runs her own international taxation firm.

THE SAME year, Moshe Frej, a volunteer medic raced to the scene of ambushed soldiers in Hebron and was shot in the back while caring for the wounded. He underwent emergency, experimental surgery. He’s a father of eight and has become an osteopath.

That’s around the same time that Aluma Mekaitan Guertzenstein, a high school senior got on a bus thinking about a math test and a terrorist detonated a bomb, spraying shrapnel into her brain and body. She underwent surgery and years of physical therapy, while completing three degrees. She only has use of one arm. Her pregnancy was followed closely at Hadassah Hospital and her son’s brit was in the synagogue beneath the Chagall Windows. I was there, of course.

Natan Sandaka, a 21-year-old border guard was patrolling on the Street of the Prophets when he confronted a terrorist heading for the newborns at Bikur Cholim Hospital in Jerusalem’s center. He hit the detonator near Sandaka instead. Today Sandaka works with Ethiopian teens at risk.

Also present is Dr. Gabby Elbaz Greener from Kiryat Malachi who was studying occupational therapy in 1995 when the bus she was on was blown up. Devastatingly injured, she decided to become a physician during her recovery. She’s a leading interventional cardiologist, known for creative lifesaving solutions, and a mom.

We all sit down for lunch, with staff and visitors from abroad. You won’t be surprised that no one ate too much amid the shared memories, held-back tears and the elation of meeting together. As Singer says, when she closes her eyes she can hear the crashing, feel the blast, smell the burning skin.

And love is in the air, too – the incalculable love and bonding among those who have survived terrorism.

Says Singer: “Being here today is so significant to me, especially with so many of you who were also in terror attacks. There’s no reason why some of those on the bus with me didn’t survive and I am here. I have to think that I am here for a reason.

“It’s my hope that I can help prevent future terror victims by speaking out and to be a voice of Israel in the world. The love I’ve felt in the hospital and from Hadassah women over so many years has helped me return to normal life.”

Before they part ways, there’s one more act of love to complete. They go upstairs to visit Danny Turgeman, recovering from the latest of who-knows-how-many surgeries. Café Moment, March 9, 2002.

Surviving is just the beginning.