It was a beautiful Jerusalem summer day and I had just caught the number 14 bus on my way to meet a friend for dinner. It was the type of day that you’d never believe could end like it did. That day was June 11, 2003, nine years ago when a homicide bomber boarded the No. 14 bus in Jerusalem and blew himself up, murdering 16 innocent people and maiming many more. It was the day that changed my life forever.
I was on that bus.
I remember nonchalantly choosing my seat on the bus, a choice that saved my life.
It feels like yesterday. When I close my eyes I am brought back to the events of that day, which are still so fresh in my mind. I remember nonchalantly choosing my seat on the bus, a choice that saved my life. I remember hearing the sounds of crushing metal and feeling the shockwave as the explosion tore through the bus. I remember immediately shutting my eyes, a seemingly insignificant neurological instinct that saved my sight. And then the moment of eerie silence that followed, a silence so frightening, so telling, silence of those who were dead in every seat around me.
Then I screamed. I screamed so loud that a stranger, who had heard the blast from three blocks away, heard my cries and ran toward the mangled bus and pulled me out. I will never forget the old woman who stood by my side holding me as I was burned, bleeding and frightened. I will never forget the kindness and love that was shown to me by those I had known my entire life and by those whom I had never met.
People are always asking me how surviving a terrorist attack has changed my life, or the lessons I take from the experience. There have been many. I live life differently. I feel that God gave me a second chance and I don’t take that for granted. It was at that moment in the depths of my personal tragedy that I understood that the world may be filled with horrible acts of terror and destruction, but the only way to persevere and to prevail in the face of the horror is to spread kindness and help those in their deepest moments of need. Through those moments Strength to Strength was born, the organization that I founded which is dedicated to assisting victims of terror across the globe by supporting them and bringing them together to overcome long lasting psychological and physical trauma and help move forward with their lives.
I believe that it is my mission to live a life that promotes everything that is the opposite of what that day stood for. I now understand how truly fragile life is. I realize that I control a lot less than I used to think, but that does not excuse us from doing our absolute best. My mission has become to empower people, and with that mission I have traveled the world to many countries that have been impacted by terror, where I have met some of the most amazing people. I know that our paths would have never crossed except that a common experience has brought us together.
My mission is to live a life that promotes everything that is the opposite of what that day stood for.
The most important thing I have learned over the years is that connecting to other survivors is a vital component to moving forward. One survivor in particular has become such a close friend that I cannot imagine my life without her. Three years ago I received a phone call from the State Department in Washington, DC telling me that there was an American who had survived Mumbai, living and working in Amsterdam. She was looking to connect with other survivors with a similar experience. I previously offered to assist any American victims of international terror who needed support.
We connected on a deep level during the first few minutes of the phone conversation, which lasted over two hours. Now she is like family to me. She’s the one person who will understand my feelings right after I hear about a terrorist attack somewhere in the world and someone to share my concerns and provide perspective on life. We both come from different backgrounds, different cities, different religions but our experience and our shared mission has bonded us for life.
I recently returned from a trip to Israel. They are no longer just vacations. Half my trip is spent visiting the people who, on the day of the bus bombing, opened their hearts and their worlds to me and have been my family ever since. “Nu?” they said to me. “Have you been riding the buses while you are here?”
“No” I replied.
“Because even though it’s been nine years, I’m still scared.”
“Sarri, you cannot live in fear. A terrible thing happened to you and you have every reason to worry about getting on another bus. But you travel around the world as the head of Strength To Strength telling other victims of terror that they cannot allow their fears to control and dictate the paths for their lives. You cannot allow that either. We are getting on a bus today, and we will come with you.”
That afternoon, on my last day just hours before boarding a flight back to New York, I was back on the bus, on the same route where I would have been on that day, if the bus had continued on its way.
Life is filled with uncertainty, with things that are scary, with challenges the size of mountains, and with days you just don’t know how you will get through. But life is also filled with strangers who will pull you out of a burning bus and who will hold you while you cry. These are people you have known your whole life and people you never met, who will cross oceans and deserts for you. My life has been filled with both, and it is the combination of the two that reminds me daily that I am alive, and my work is not yet complete. Thank you God for giving me a second chance.