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July 3, 2003

Mourning

"At that moment, I understood that Vicky was gone, and I started to yell and cry."

http://www.jewishjournal.com/family/article/mourning_on_the_fourth_of_july_20030704

Vicky and Nimrod

Vicky and Nimrod

On a white brick ledge in his Chatsworth backyard, Avi Hen's fancy barbecue -- once the symbol of his family's happiness -- now sits abandoned. Avi sometimes wanders over to it and remembers the days when he would host 30 people for a party.

The house would fill with friends; his daughter, Victoria (Vicky), would invite her buddies, and his son Nimrod's girlfriends would yell, "Nim, I love you," from the red Ford Mustang the teen had refurbished so enthusiastically.

After a party, the immediate family -- Avi, Rachel and their children, Vicky, Udi and Nimrod -- would sit around till the wee hours, talking about everything.

"Friday night near the pool -- those were the special times," Avi says. "We would sit and talk, pour out our hearts, discuss problems, give advice until 2 or 3 in the morning. The kids' friends would call and ask them to go out, and they would say, 'No, today is our day with our parents.'"

But then came July 4, 2002. Avi was at the market shopping for meat when Rachel called him to tell him about the attack at Los Angeles International Airport. That day the Hens learned about the death of their 25-year-old daughter (and Ya'acov Aminov, 46, the father of six, also a San Fernando Valley resident).

Then just four months after the airport slayings, 18-year-old Nimrod got into a car accident; although he only suffered broken legs, he lapsed into a coma on the operating table. Ten days later, he died.

In the blink of an eye, the happy family of five was decimated. For them, the Fourth of July -- America's most important and joyous holiday -- today serves only as an unbearable marker for their agonizing losses.

"We have not used the barbecue since then, because on that November afternoon, four months after we lost Vicky, we lit it up and decided to make a barbecue," Avi says. "And then Nimrod was killed in a car accident."

"I haven't even come near the barbecue since then. I don't clean it," Avi says. "We don't do holidays. We don't do Shabbats. We didn't even do a Pesach seder this year. I wanted to crawl under a rock until Pesach was over."

The Hens' move to the United States in 1990 began as an adventure. They lived in Rishon Lezion, in central Israel, where Avi was a member of the Egged bus company, one of the hardest union jobs to obtain.

"In the beginning we didn't have a specific goal," Avi says. "We came for a vacation to find some peace -- for a year or so, no more -- and we got stuck. We got stuck on the American atmosphere and the financial ease."

The family first moved to Granada Hills, and Avi opened a car upholstery business, later moving into auto parts instead. The children attended school, learned English and made friends.

"We didn't get rich, but we lived well," Avi says. "We bought a nice house, the children adapted. Nimrod grew up as an American in every way, and soon the rest of us were captured by the magic."

"In hindsight, do I regret that we came?" the father says, sighing. "After all we went through, it's hard to answer that. Who could even guess? Everything looked rosy then."

"Actually, in the beginning, I was against leaving Israel," he says, explaining that his family is 12th-generation Israeli and it's looked down upon to leave the country. But his wife wanted to stay in the United States, so they held a family meeting.

"The kids didn't want to hear about going back," Avi says. "We made dozens of friends, many of them Israelis. We had parties and simchas [celebrations] three times a week. The economic opportunities were much better. Our hearts were in Israel with the rest of the family, but the fact is our physical existence was easy."

Nimrod, the youngest, was a creative kid, the wild type who wanted to try it all. Girls followed him around, and he was always busy with projects -- building model cars, fixing computers, raising pets in his room.

Vicky, the oldest, was the responsible one.

"She was the glue of the house, the cornerstone," Rachel explains. "She was the children's second mother and my rock. We would go shopping together, see movies together."

"She would drive me to wherever I wanted to go, because I didn't drive," Rachel says. "She was my right hand. She was the light that shined in when the door opened."

In the mid-1990s, the Hens bought a house in Chatsworth with a pool and a garden. Vicky, through Hilltop, a staffing agency, began working at the El Al counter at Los Angeles International. At the end of 1996, she left, looking for something else with easier hours.

Meanwhile, her marriage went on the rocks. "She married a guy she really loved, but it didn't work out," Avi says. "Despite everything that happened between them, I'm sure that if Vicky had just one minute to think before she closed her eyes, in that minute she thought about him."

Vicky and her husband divorced at the end of 2001.

"Vicky was very depressed," Rachel says. "In the beginning she stayed home a lot. Later, she began to go out and to try to live her life again. She very much wanted to find a new family. That's how she ended up back at the El Al counter -- much to my regret."

It was in April 2002 when Vicky returned to work at El Al, again through Hilltop, but with better conditions. Her contact with people -- especially Israelis -- restored her cheerfulness, and she started dating someone new.

"On July 3, the day before the fatal attack, she came home very late," her mother recalls. "She called me and said, 'Mom, I finished my shift, and I'm on the way home; I have no uniform shirts for tomorrow, and I also need money for gas.' I told her, 'No problem.' I ironed her shirt, and I put money on her bed. She came home at 10:30 and was really tired."

Avi and Rachel were sitting with a friend, and Vicky joined them, asking, "What are we doing tomorrow on the Fourth of July?" her mother recalls.

Her father replied that they would make a big barbecue at home, adding, "We won't go to the parks, because I'm afraid for you. There are [terrorist] alerts, and it's going to be dangerous outside tomorrow."

Avi says that his daughter was not supposed to work on July 4, but she was called to the airport because they were short staffed.

Avi asked her, "Didn't we agree that the Fourth of July was dangerous; that we're staying home?"

Vicky told him, 'What can I do, abba? They need backup. And besides, who would mess with El Al? Who would dare come near us?"

"So that was that," Avi says. "What can you do?"

They agreed to meet back at the house for a barbecue after work.

"She left at 6:15 in the morning, earlier than usual," Avi says. "And she didn't come back."

"The last time I saw her was late the night before," her mother remembers. "She was wearing pajamas and made herself some popcorn and went upstairs to watch a video in her room. When she left in the morning, I was still sleeping. I missed her."

July 4, 2002, was Hesham Mohammed Hadayet's 41st birthday. Los Angeles International was bustling with travelers. Vicky was working at the El Al counter in the Tom Bradley International Terminal, handling passengers bound for Israel.

At about 11:30 a.m., the Egyptian-born Hadayet parked his Mercedes-Benz in the lot across from the El Al terminal. Hadayet, a limousine driver who immigrated to the United States in 1992, wore a black jacket and carried two guns (a 45 mm and 8 mm), extra ammunition clips and a knife.

Carrying no suitcase or briefcase, Hadayet walked straight into the Tom Bradley Terminal, went past the El Al ropes and waited in the check-in line. No one stopped him for questioning.

When he was a few feet from the ticket counter, he opened fire. An unarmed Israeli security officer jumped Hadayet, but was unable to subdue him. Hadayet continued shooting.

Aryeh Golan, a 51-year-old passenger, joined the guard in the struggle, and the two of them took Hadayet down. Then Haim Sapir, an armed El Al guard, jumped in and fired several shots at the attacker. Hadayet had a knife in his other hand, and stabbed Sapir three times before he was killed.

Vicky and Aminov were killed in the spray of bullets. Seven others -- including the guard and some passengers -- were injured.

Meanwhile, at the Hen home, weekend preparations were underway.

"It was Thursday, and I was starting to cook for Shabbat," Rachel says. "Vicky had asked me to make knaidlach soup. The television was on, and there was breaking news. I wasn't really watching, but I heard, 'the El Al counter.'"

"I immediately called Vicky's cell phone -- Vicky never refuses to take my call. Worst case, if she's busy, she answers, 'Mom, I'm in the middle of something, I'll call you back.'"

"But there was no answer," Rachel says. "On TV, they said there were injuries, but they hadn't said anything yet about people being killed. I started to worry. I told Avi to come home."

Avi had gone to the market to buy meat at about 11 a.m. He was standing in line with a full cart when his wife called.

"She says, 'Avi, there was an attack at the El Al counter in Los Angeles, and Vicky is not answering her phone,'" Avi says. "I told her, 'Don't worry, I'm coming home.'"

Avi abandoned the cart and rushed home. He kept trying to reach his daughter on her cell phone, but each time he got her voice mail.

"I came home and Rachel said to me that she thinks she saw Vicky on a stretcher on the news," Avi recalls. "She said, 'I think I recognize her hair.'"

"I told her, 'You're just imagining things. Don't even think like that. It's crazy over there; everyone went outside, and Vicky probably left her cell phone in the office.' I didn't even believe myself at that moment. I wanted to, though," Avi says.

"But the minutes passed," he continues, "and we didn't hear anything from her. It dawned on me that something wasn't right, and I started to pray that if she were hurt, that she'd be among the wounded."

At about noon, a doctor from UCLA called.

"He says, 'Who am I talking to?'" Avi recalls. "And I immediately started to yell, 'What happened to my daughter?' And he says, 'I can't tell you anything on the telephone. I want you to come here with your whole family.' At that moment, I understood that Vicky was gone, and I started to yell and cry."

"Nimrod took the phone from me and asked the doctor what happened to his sister," Avi says. "The doctor told him, 'Your sister didn't make it.'"

"When Nimrod threw himself on the floor, I understood that it was over," Avi says. "Nimrod took the keys to the car and said, 'I'm going to the hospital.' And I screamed, 'Don't go! Don't go! Wait for us!' But he didn't listen and drove there, and in the hospital parking lot, he drove into a wall. We didn't want to drive in that kind of condition, so we waited for a friend to take us."

At the hospital, the family received the news of Vicky's death. FBI agents swarmed into the medical center and started asking questions.

Despite the fact that the deadly shooting appeared to be a terrorist attack, the FBI looked into other angles.

"They asked us a lot of questions about Vicky's ex-husband -- apparently they'd heard that Vicky had been married and that she'd had problems," Avi recalls. "I was in shock. The thought that they believed he could be involved shocked me."

"We sat on the side and cried, and then they started to ask Nimrod all kinds of questions, and it was awful," he says.

Immediately after the attack, Israeli officials -- including Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh, Interior Minister Shimon Peres and Los Angeles Consul General Yuval Rotem -- called the deadly shooting a terrorist act. However, the FBI held out, looking into other possibilities, such as a work conflict (Hadayet drove limousines to the airport), or a lone hate crime not connected to terrorism, or the possibility that the Egyptian immigrant simply went berserk.

At the beginning of the investigation, the FBI learned that the Egyptian government had accused Hadayet of belonging to Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyyah, a fundamentalist Islamic group, that he hated Jews and that he had cleared out his bank account and sent his family back to Egypt before the attack. However, the agency still did not call the shooting a terrorist attack.

According to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reports, Hadayet applied for political asylum in the United States in 1992 but was denied a green card in 1995. However, he obtained a green card two years later, when his wife won an INS lottery.

It took the FBI nine months to conclude the LAX shooting was a terrorist attack. The delay angered the family.

"It was beyond a shadow of a doubt," Avi says. "The man wasn't a lunatic, and the facts quickly proved this. A crazy man can't get into the airport and walk by 3,000 people, wait in line and open fire on only Israelis. This was premeditated."

"The first week after Vicky died, we were in shock," Avi says. "When we started to absorb her death, it was very, very difficult. We were in a deep depression, and Rachel even required psychological care."

"I tried to hold it together, because I had another two kids at home," he says. "Because for my whole life, I had showed them the way. So I didn't want them to see me in a situation where I was losing it."

Avi says that he wasn't thinking straight at the time, that he had all these questions buzzing around in his head.

"How could it be that of the thousands of people in the terminal, it's just our daughter who got killed? Why didn't I stop her from going to work on the Fourth of July? Why didn't I warn her?" Avi recalls.

"But I quickly came to the conclusion that I shouldn't blame myself, because I am not to blame. I don't think that I could have prevented her from going to work. I've done everything I could to make sure that my children would have it good," he says. "And I decided that I'm not going to focus on my own guilt. I started to look for fault outside, and I said, 'There will come a day that we get up from shloshim [the thirty days of mourning], and we'll think about all of this.'"

But destiny didn't give them much time to think. Four months after Vicky was killed, the family was having their first barbecue when a neighbor knocked on their door and asked, "Does your son have a red Mustang?" Rachel said yes, and the neighbor said, "He got into an accident near Rite Aid, [a few blocks from the house], but don't worry, he's OK."

"I immediately took the car and went there with a friend," Avi says. "When I got there, Nimrod was on a stretcher. I asked the policeman to let me and Rachel talk to him. I said to him, 'Please let us. We just lost a daughter a few months ago.'"

"We went up to Nimrod, and he started to cry, saying, 'Daddy, daddy, I'm sorry,' because this wasn't the first time he got into an accident," Avi says. "I said to him, 'What are you sorry about? Everything's OK.' He was very frightened, because he respected us, and he was afraid of upsetting us after what happened to Vicky."

According to the accident report, Nimrod was trying to avoid a car and struck a parked vehicle and then a fire hydrant. He broke both his legs.

"We sat with him for about five hours in the emergency room and talked about all sorts of things," Avi says. "He was tired and drugged from all the medicine, and he was cold."

"I told him not to worry, that he would be all right and that we would take him home soon and take care of him," Avi says. "I said the whole time, 'It will be OK. It will be OK. It will be OK.'"

Five hours later, they transported the injured son to a different hospital, where the family was covered by insurance for the surgery. The surgeon told them that Nimrod had to undergo an operation on his legs, that they would put braces on, and he would have to use a wheelchair for a few months.

"But I still remember this until today," Avi says. "The doctor said, 'Within a half a year, he can be a football player.'"

Nimrod was moved to the operating room at 1 a.m., and the Hens were told to return at 7 a.m.

"Before the operation, I pleaded with the doctor," Avi says. "I told him, 'I lost my daughter, please watch over my son.' He said to me, 'Go home, it will be OK.'"

The Hens returned at 6:30 a.m.

"Suddenly, the doctor walked through the doors, all sweaty, saying he was having a problem with my son's eyes," Avi says. "His eyes are like glass, they aren't reacting," the doctor said.

A specialist was called in. Nimrod was suffering from fat embolism syndrome, which affected his brain. The syndrome often occurs following trauma and fractures.

"That was it -- Nimrod's brain had died," Avi says.

Nimrod was on life support for 10 days. "We were with him every day, and we didn't want to take him off life support."

"In my heart, I knew I was talking to a dead person, but I was hoping for a miracle," he says. "Each day, I prayed and prayed. But to no avail."

A week after the accident, when it appeared that Nimrod was brain dead, the hospital wanted to take him off life support, but didn't because the Hens opposed the action. Ten days after the accident, the hospital called the family and notified them that Nimrod had died.

"That was our most difficult blow," Avi says, sighing. "We had already made peace with the first one. We'd hoped that Vicky's death -- even with all the pain, sadness and loss -- would save others' lives and cause security procedures to improve. But with Nimrod, we can't accept this."

"There is no reason for him to be gone," Avi muses. "There was no justifiable reason that he would be gone. We sat and talked with Nimrod, talked for hours, and everything was OK with him. This cannot be."

Rachel says that after her son's death, she went back to work.

"It's only at work that I can stop thinking a little bit," she explains. "The minute I come home, it's unbearable. I can't look at the parking spot where his car stood or go on the streets I used to go with him. When I hear the name Mason Street, where the accident was, I feel like I'm dying."

"I talk to their pictures, and I imagine how Nimrod used to fly inside with his graceful legs, laughing as he entered," she says. "I hear him say, 'Ema, abba, what presents did you bring me?'"

These days, the Hens' backyard pool is surrounded by a fence; errant leaves and dirt float on the water.

"A week before Nimrod was killed, he started his latest project, to fix the pool," Avi says. "Now it's staying that way, so I put up the fence. That way no one will fall in by accident."

Yet a larger question looms: should they sell the house?

"This is the children's home; this is the house they grew up in," Avi says. "How can we continue to live here, when every knock on the door makes us jump? It's impossible to live here."

"Wherever you go, the children are there. Everything is the children's," he explains. "Whatever you do you feel like you are here with the children. And, on the other hand, this is our memorial."

Pointing to his daughter's bed, he says, "Here on this bed, Vicky put a tray of popcorn and would sit and watch videos." Then gesturing to the closet, he adds, "Nimrod would store his model cars here. It's a commemoration."

Rachel sighs, saying, "God gave me everything: a wonderful husband, three wonderful children. What more could I ask for? I had everything. And then He took everything from me. Why?"

"I don't know how to answer this question," she says. "I searched for answers. Where it went wrong, I don't know. It's beyond me."

"I grew up in a religious home, and today I still follow tradition and try to find strength in the Torah and the rabbis," Rachel continues. "They brought me many books about reincarnation, wandering souls. I don't find anything to calm me."

"I'm not saying I'm a complete atheist. And I'm also not saying I'll become religious again. I am just trying to understand why am I being punished?" she says. "I only hope that my remaining son, Udi, will fulfill everything I ever wanted. I want to connect to him; I want him to tell me what pains him. But he is introverted and closed."

Udi, 23, sits on the side quietly as his parents speak. He clearly carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"I don't believe in God anymore -- I don't believe in anything," Udi says. "Once, I believed. But that's when I had a brother and sister."

When the days of mourning came to an end, Rachel and Avi were left with a long list of unanswered questions and legal battles. A suit has been filed against the city of Los Angeles, according to attorney Richard I. Fine, who is representing the Hen and Aminov families. The Hens are also contemplating a suit against the hospital in their son's death.

"I don't know what I want to do anymore -- to sue the hospital or not to sue them," Avi admits. "Either way, I will continue to fight, to bring the truth to light. I will fight until my last breath. I get up in the morning for nothing, and I go to sleep for nothing."

"I see images inside my head all the time," he says. "People pat me on the shoulder and say, 'You're a strong man, you're a strong man,' but I don't know what a strong man is. Perhaps because I have a war, I can hold it together, because I know that I need to fight. But if I didn't have to fight, I would have collapsed long ago."

"Rabbis come here; they tell me stories: They tell me that souls meet up above, and that Vicky, who was very tied to Nimrod, wanted to get him out away from the evil in this world because she believes that it's better there," Avi says. "But I can't accept this. I lost my children; that's a fact. The rest doesn't matter. My world is over."

Wiping tears from his eyes, Avi tells Rachel to stop crying, and lifts his head, saying, "On the other hand, I still have a wife and son and parents who I have to stay sane for. The easiest thing in the world would have been for me to not get out of bed until they carried me out in a stretcher, but life is stronger than death. I still have my family to take care of. I'm not looking for a medal, but I'm living up to my responsibilities."

"I built this family," Avi emphasizes, "and I don't want to be the one to take it apart."

Avner Hofstein is the West Coast correspondent for Yediot Aharonot, the Israeli daily.

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