Travel

Terrorist bullet still digs deep

CanadaUnrest, Conflicts and WarFamilyNational SecurityIsraelTerrorismDeath

ON July 4, 2002, Sarah Phillips was checking in at Los Angeles International Airport for her trip home to Canada after a vacation with friends. The first flight she could get to arrive in time for a grandson's birthday was a connection through Toronto offered by the Israel-based airline, El Al.

As she stood in line in the Tom Bradley International Terminal, Egyptian immigrant Hesham Mohamed Hadayet was parking his Mercedes-Benz in a garage across the street. Dressed in a dark suit jacket and carrying two handguns and a 6-inch knife, he walked into the ticketing lobby and without a word opened fire at the El Al ticket counter.

Phillips watched as the ticket agent who had just pointed her toward a security line fell from her seat, shot dead. Thinking for a split second it was fireworks, Phillips then felt herself sinking to the floor, a shot shredding the tendons of her right ankle.

"I was on my knees waiting for the next bullet to kill me execution-style," Phillips recounted.

As seconds ticked by Phillips watched a wounded man on the terrazzo floor a few feet away.

"He had his face turned away from me, and he was moving ever so slightly, and then he stopped," she said. "I could almost feel his spirit coming across the floor."

"I was praying 'finish me now' because I wanted to go with him," she continued. "I wanted to be where he was because I felt the peace coming from him."

Moments after Hadayet fired 10 rounds into the crowd, he was shot by an El Al security guard, the wounds causing him to "howl like a wolf that had been trapped," Phillips said. "That scream will live with me forever." After a scuffle with several El Al guards and a bystander, the gunman died.

Phillips awoke minutes later on her back, staring up at girders lining the terminal ceiling. Paramedics took her to the nearby Centinela Airport Medical Clinic.

Phillips used a medic's cellphone to call her son Andrew.

He said his mother told him that she had been shot, and she wasn't sure if she would live. "My instant reaction was that I needed to get there," he said.

When Andrew arrived from Toronto, he found his mother propped up, ankle swathed in white bandages, on a bed stuffed into a broom closet. The room was considered more secure than regular wards because police were concerned about other attackers. An armed guard was posted outside.

FBI investigators later found that Hadayet had planned his attack out of anger over Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Killed in the shooting were Victoria Hen, 25, an immigrant from Israel working as a ticket agent for a company under contract with El Al, and the man who died lying next to Phillips, Jacob Aminov, 46, of North Hollywood, a diamond importer and father of five who was at the airport to see off friends leaving for Israel.

Phillips underwent surgery to repair the tendons damaged by the gunshot. A week later she flew home. The injury left her unable to bend her ankle and forced her to turn her right foot outward, altering her gait. The shift in the way she walked re-injured her right hip, which had been surgically repaired months before the shooting.

In some ways, it was the least of her problems. She had survived the first terrorist attack at an airport in the United States, but the aftermath would prove to be another matter.

CLUMPS of dirty snow sit stubbornly under the pines in a tiny 99-year-old village two hours north of Toronto. It's early spring this year as Phillips, a 65-year-old Irish Canadian, hobbles down the main street in Coldwater, a village of 1,000 residents. She greets everyone she passes by name.

The Dollar Store owners say they've missed her since she shuttered her business next door in 2005.

After the shooting, Phillips quit her job counseling pregnant teens, sold her cottage in a Toronto suburb, moved to Coldwater and opened a dressmaking shop. The grandmother of eight said she was too emotionally traumatized by the shooting to continue her work with unwed mothers. Selling the house and opening a business was her way, she said, of "trying to make an abnormal life normal."

Friends and relatives say she quickly had more work than she could handle.

"Everyone was flocking to her — it was the first time someone with her talent offered that service," Andrew said.

Before moving into an apartment above her shop, Phillips lived briefly with Andrew, his wife and three sons, in a home near the center of town. It was then, Andrew said, that he realized how the attack had "completely changed her emotionally."

In times past, "Anyone who needed anything, she would give it to them, her heart and soul," he said. But after the shooting, she became angry and forgetful.

The most striking change, Andrew said, and one Phillips acknowledges, is that she began to make a series of poor decisions, including selling her cottage.

The shooting "changed her judgment," Andrew recalled. "She was very level-headed. The mistakes she's made since are mind-boggling."

Reminders of the attack often set her back. When Phillips opened a piece of luggage returned by the FBI months after the shooting, she found a bullet. The projectile left cigarette-like burns on her favorite clothes. She was unable to concentrate on her sewing for weeks. Friends and relatives say work often piled up, especially after a second hip surgery in the summer of 2004.

Frustrated that the tiny business wasn't prospering, she shut it down and moved to Elmvale, a hamlet of 1,500 half an hour west, where she opened a smaller seamstress business. Friends lent her money, but it failed as well.

Phillips stopped wearing jewelry. She didn't get her hair done regularly. She referred to the shooting as "the accident," and her wound as "the leg." Destitute, she moved into an apartment complex owned by her eldest son, Robert, in Kitchener, a mid-sized city about an hour west of Toronto.

Andrew used to speak with her every day, but not now. "The last few years we haven't been able to have a proper conversation," he said. "It's very difficult to talk to her. She's not the mom I remember."

Phillips attributes her downward spiral in part to a lack of financial support from the Canadian and U.S. governments, which she said left her unable to afford a psychologist trained to help victims of terrorist attacks.

"If I had had someone in the beginning, I wouldn't have made the mistakes I did and lost everything," she said. "The biggest thing of all is I've lost confidence in who I am."

Phillips and the families of other LAX victims sued the city of Los Angeles for $100 million, claiming it failed to prevent the attack. But a federal judge ruled in 2005 that the city could not be held liable for injuries caused by third parties. The ruling is scheduled to be reviewed today by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena.

Phillips' attorney asked her to fly down for the hearing — a suggestion that caused memories of the attack to come flooding back.

"I'm terrified," she said, adding that she's never met the families of the two people killed in the attack. "But I know I have to go."

Phillips was counting on money from the lawsuit to pay for psychiatric help. She needs treatment for the same kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that combat troops experience, said Leslie Balmer, a psychologist who volunteered to help her last year.

"There's an expectation that because there's been this period of time you should be over it," Balmer told Phillips during a recent visit at her office in Brampton, Canada. "You have to talk it, and talk it, and talk it, and then you're not feeling it physically."

"I want to work, I want to be of importance," Phillips told Balmer, recounting how her fear of crowds forced her recently to quit a $7-an-hour job doing alterations at a Kitchener dry cleaner. "I need to be, what's the word?"

"Valued," the psychologist interjected.

"That's the word," Phillips said.

"You know you're OK when you can walk through the world and things can't blindside you," Balmer added.

Phillips still finds herself rushing out of the supermarket after glancing up at girders that remind her of the terminal at LAX. She flees a gym after spotting a yoga teacher wearing the same color shirt as the man who died on the floor next to her. A tiny stone hitting a car's windshield causes her to jump in fear.

WHEN a visitor calls at her apartment, Phillips brings out a shoebox filled with photos. In one, five boys and four girls are in their summer best — except 13-year-old Sarah, a middle child known among her siblings as Sadie, who is wearing a new business suit.

Phillips grew up in Ireland, the daughter of a gas company worker and a mother of 10 who dubbed her "the little soldier" because of the role she played in the family as "mother to the little ones and slave to the older ones."

"Every time I saw her I would call her 'my little mommy,' " recalled younger sister Helen Lehouillier, who lives about 68 miles away in London, Canada. "It's hard to talk to her now; she pulls back a lot."

Phillips says she can't afford to go places with her four sisters and two brothers who also live in Canada, or to visit her three brothers who remain in Ireland.

"I was the one they called when they had problems," Phillips said. "Now, I'm the needy one."

Afraid of public places, Phillips didn't go out to eat until last year, when she visited a local chain restaurant with one of her sisters. Unexpectedly, the wait staff and a nearby table celebrating a patron's birthday broke out into loud applause, causing Phillips to faint.

Wiping away tears, she pulls out of the shoebox a grainy shot of herself, her ex-husband and their four boys camping in a two-bedroom tent in the woods near Dublin. Another picture shows a 60-child-strong bagpipe band for the village of Tallagh that included three of her sons. Phillips spent years making uniforms for the players.

When her husband lost his job in the early 1980s, Phillips supported the family by working as a designer for several Dublin clothing chains.

In 1988, the family immigrated to Canada. They bought a two-story house with a pool in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb. She finished raising her boys. Then, one night in 1996, after her husband of 31 years came home drunk once again, Phillips decided to leave him. Taking $38,000 of the $40,000 she received from a divorce settlement, she bought the cottage.

She took a visitor to see it — the first time she had been there since the shooting. "I had a herb garden along here," she said, gesturing toward a dirt patch near the front walk. "Day lilies were there," she sighed.

She recounts how miserable she's been after recently spending weeks housebound while trying to recover from her third hip surgery. Her doctor had just cleared her to drive, so she hopes to visit family, friends and her psychologist.

She also plans to volunteer with the Kitchener Police Department to counsel victims of violence.

"People don't realize how victims suffer," she said. "If there's one victim I can put on the right road it will be worth it."

Peering down the street, Phillips recalls how during the five years she lived there she used to walk a few blocks to Lake Ontario, sit on her favorite rock and ponder how far she had come.

Today, her simple hope is to again become self-sufficient.

"I'm in limbo," she said. "I feel like I have a lot of years left in me. But what's the quality of my life? What's it worth?"

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jennifer.oldham@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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