August 7, 1997
After the El Al jet landed, the relatives greeted each other with hugs and tears and counted themselves lucky. The bombs that killed 13 bystanders (as well as the two Hamas terrorists) and wounded nearly 170 people, had left the Howards relatively unscathed. Leo incurred whiplash, Yoni had glass shards embedded in one leg, and most had painful ringing in their ears. But the close family friends who had been with them at Mahane Yehuda were seriously injured and remained hospitalized.
The memories of that nightmarish day were so vivid that the Howards decided to cut their Israel trip short and return home.
"It's been very traumatic," says Leo, a soft-spoken CPA who lives and works in Encino. "But this will not scare us off from visiting Israel. None of us have any concerns about going back. We're going to show our support for Israel."
This Zionist point of view is typical of Leo and Alice Howard, who have been active in Israel Bonds and at Valley Beth Shalom, and who have traveled some 25 times to the Jewish state. Two of their children, Jane Howard Blitz and Alan Howard, lived for a time in Israel.
Alan, who lived in Israel from 1972 to 1990, attended dental school at Hebrew University; married a Chilean-born Israeli; stuck out the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars; and named his son, Yoni, after Yoni Netanyahu, the martyred Entebbe hero. His best friend, Shlomo Shimonovitz, remains in Israel, and Yoni is good friends with Shlomo's sons, Itamar, 10, and Zvika, 14. (The Shimonovitz boys were with the Howards during the bombings.)
Alice Howard, for her part, is a national board member of NA'AMAT USA and, over the years, she and Leo made a ritual of taking their grandchildren to Israel. Several years ago, it was their teen-age granddaughters' turn, and this summer was slated for Yoni, who attends Oakwood School, and Adam, who's entering 10th grade at Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple.
The day before leaving for the proposed 3 1/2-week trip, Leo Howard proudly told a friend, "Tomorrow, I'm taking my grandsons to Israel."
The next time the friend spoke to Leo, it was two days after the bombings; he remained characteristically stoic. Leo says that on the morning of July 30, he and Alice had taken the boys, along with Itamar and Zvika, to visit Masada. Afterward, they had stopped at Mahane Yehuda for an Iraqi-style falafel.
Just before 1:15 p.m., as they ducked into a bakery to buy dessert, Yoni remarked on a strange-looking man who was wearing a black suit and tie and carrying a briefcase in the stifling summer heat. The sightseers thought little of it as they resumed walking. When they heard a loud explosion -- the first of the two bomb blasts -- the Howards assumed that it was a sonic boom.
When the second explosion struck, violently strewing food and fire and body parts with an incredible heat, they did not realize that they stood less than 20 feet from the second suicide bomber. Ducking into that bakery saved their lives.
"It was mass chaos," Leo says. "Everywhere, people were bleeding. Zvika had a big hole in his arm. And I saw Yoni running toward me, carrying a small child with a hole blown through his chest. I did not, at first, recognize that it was Itamar."
Grandfather and grandson, with ears splitting, ran wildly away from the blast site, and when Yoni saw a charred body upon the ground, he breathlessly advised his zeyde not to look. Leo finally took Itamar from his grandson; his shirt and shoes became soaked with blood. He yelled for a doctor, and a pediatrician miraculously appeared and held the boy's chest closed until the ambulance arrived.
Meanwhile, amid the sirens and soldiers scurrying everywhere, Adam had become separated from the others, pushed out of the way by the frenetic photographers; he wandered around in shock and half-dressed, having given up his shirt to dress Zvika's wounds.
The family members ended up in different ambulances. Some time after being reunited, they learned that Zvika needed tissue and blood vessel grafts and that Itamar's wound was less than half an inch from his heart. The 10-year-old boy had half a lung removed and was on a respirator, in critical condition. Had it not been for the pediatrician, the boy would have died, the doctors said.
While the Howards did not suffer much physical damage from the bombings, there was an emotional toll. The family suffered sleepless nights, and the grandsons were frightened by crowds and loud noises and showed other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
A psychiatrist advised that the boys remain in Israel just long enough to see that their friends were healing; then they should immediately return home to their parents. On Saturday, the Howards revisited Mahane Yehuda, and amid the flowers and the yahrtzeit candles, they attempted a sense of closure.
Today, back in Los Angeles, Alan Howard is searching for an Israeli-born therapist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder. He is also purchasing airline tickets to take Yoni back to Israel on Aug. 13. "My son wants to go back, to make sure his friends are OK," Alan says. "And I don't want his memories of Israel to consist only of fiery bombs and dead bodies."
Leo, meanwhile, insists that Israel "is still much safer than most of Los Angeles. If people now refuse to visit Israel, it means that the terrorists have won."