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Sighs of Relief, Followed by Screams

The victims at Jerusalem's Cafe Hillel had thought the tragedy was over for the night. A bomber was about to claim six more lives.

September 10, 2003|Henry Chu and Laura King | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — The first suicide bomber struck about 6 p.m., right as 22-year-old Miran Azran was starting her waitressing shift.

As news trickled in about the attack near an army base outside Tel Aviv, Azran breathed a slightly guilty sigh of relief. It didn't seem likely that anything else would happen Tuesday night -- a sentiment apparently shared by the stream of relaxed young patrons who began filling up the tables at the trendy Jerusalem cafe.

Their optimism was misplaced. Just 5 1/2 hours later, a second bomber attacked Cafe Hillel, where dozens of customers sat sipping their lattes at indoor and sidewalk tables.

"The outdoor guard spotted the bomber right away and shouted to everyone, 'Duck, everybody!' Everyone hit the floor," Azran recalled. "The inside guard went to help the one outside and the bomber went off....

"I was standing behind a concrete wall, which is probably what saved my life."

The blast killed six people in addition to the bomber and injured dozens more. Among the dead, Azran is sure, was a fellow waiter, and perhaps one of the guards.

The attack took place in a western Jerusalem neighborhood known as German Colony, a normally placid pocket of affluence where candle stores stand next to bakeries and flower vendors hawk wildly colorful bouquets outside an upscale supermarket.

In a prime location on the main drag threading through the district, Cafe Hillel was a relatively new fixture on the scene, opened less than a year ago but already boasting a steady clientele of hipsters, old men arguing politics at their favorite tables and weary mothers who would park their strollers on the sidewalk.

The enclave is popular with expatriates and young people, who flock to the sushi bars and coffee shops on narrow, shady Emek Refaim Street and see movies at an art house theater nestled on a side street named after former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

The closest the neighborhood had previously come to being the target of a terrorist attack was in March of last year.

A would-be suicide bomber who entered a popular restaurant was thwarted when an alert waiter thought the man looked nervous and hustled him out. In the man's backpack police discovered pounds of explosives; in his hand, the detonator.

But on Tuesday, the usual buzz on the sidewalks gave way to the scream of ambulances and police cars that arrived within minutes of the explosion about 11:30 p.m.

Paramedics quickly loaded the badly injured onto stretchers and into ambulances, while some of the lightly wounded wandered in a daze, a few with blood running down their faces, calling out for friends.

Patrons poured out of other establishments, running toward the scene, but rescue workers fought to hold the crowd back, yelling: "Don't, don't, don't! There could be another bomb!"

Tova Ross, a visiting yeshiva student from Australia, had been inside Cafe Hillel with two companions for about half an hour when the bomber struck.

"It just all went dark," said Ross, 24. "I saw a big flame, and then I ran out the [shattered] window and ran to somebody's house with my friends.... We cleaned the blood off, and then we went back to find an ambulance to take us to a hospital."

Ross suffered no apparent physical injuries, but her two friends suffered cuts and light shrapnel wounds.

An extra bit of caution on Ross' part may have helped her.

"I made a conscious effort not to sit outside and to sit right at the back, which together with God's help, I guess, saved my life and my friends'," she said from her hospital gurney.

Outside the blown-out cafe, paramilitary border police moved methodically up and down the street, scrutinizing cars parked nearby and smashing the windows of some to check for explosive devices. A young woman sobbed into her mobile phone, while a couple embraced wordlessly, tears in their eyes.

Down the street at another popular cafe, waiter Yigal Biton said his heart clenched when he heard the thunderous boom. Like most of the waiters and waitresses in the neighborhood, he was friendly with other servers.

"I'm thinking of all of them, because it could have just as easily been here," he said, clasping the bars of his own cafe's front gate and watching ambulances wail away.

Azran, the waitress at Cafe Hillel, has worked there just 2 1/2 months, after moving to Jerusalem from southern Israel to be close to her family.

She took the job with some trepidation, aware of the threat of attack.

"Not a day went by without my thinking about it," she said.

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