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Market Survivor 'a Miracle'

Shamsi Khani, 88, goes to Rosh Hashana dinner 10 weeks after the Farmers' Market crash.

September 27, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

By most accounts, including her own, Shamsi Khani was a goner.

As an ambulance rushed her to UCLA Medical Center from the Santa Monica Farmers' Market on July 16, it passed Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood.

"This isn't my cemetery," she told the paramedical team. "You have to take me to Sinai Temple."

It turns out that God was not ready for Khani, even if she is 88.

For her son Dan Khani, it was difficult to have faith that this beloved matriarch of a large Iranian Jewish family would survive. When he finally located her at the UCLA emergency room after hours of searching, he saw a mangled and broken woman.

She was unconscious. Her right hip was broken, and her right tibia and fibula jutted out through her skin. Her left leg was fractured. Her right cheek was gashed, and her right ear had been cut in half. A temporal artery had been severed, and her head was swathed in bandages.

But those injuries were almost incidental, surgeons said. Most troubling, her neck was broken. One specialist warned that there was a 90% chance she would be paralyzed.

Ten weeks later, Khani, who relatives say reads the Torah so religiously that she knows each week's portion by heart, has defied the odds in a decisive way. She has moved from UCLA to Santa Monica Hospital and on to the Berkley East Convalescent Hospital in Santa Monica.

Sitting in a wheelchair in her room at the rehabilitation center, Khani sports a simple neck brace rather than the metal halo that kept her neck stable for several weeks. She is not paralyzed.

Wincing only fleetingly, she lifts each lower leg several inches, 10 times in a row, to meet the hand of nurse's assistant Antionette Jackson. Her left leg is still in a cast; the calf on the other leg has a raw-looking, gouged area where doctors used muscle and skin from her inner thigh to cover the fractured bones.

"She is a miracle," said Dan Khani, a radiologist.

Another miracle: On Friday night, she took a medical van to Khani's home for Rosh Hashana dinner.

As painful as her injuries have been, Khani -- known to family members as "Maman," an affectionate Farsi term for matriarch -- was one of the lucky ones.

When George Russell Weller, 86, plowed his car through the Farmers' Market on that overcast afternoon, 10 people died, including two children, and 79 others were injured, 25 of them seriously.

To date, California Highway Patrol investigators have interviewed about 350 vendors and other witnesses.

Lt. Frank Fabrega, a spokesman for the Santa Monica Police Department, said the CHP's massive and long-awaited report on the incident is expected by mid-October. The case will then go to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, which will decide whether to file charges against Weller.

The issue is important to those affected. If Weller is charged with a crime, victims, including those who suffered business losses, might be eligible for reimbursement under the state's Victim Compensation Program.

Meanwhile, the Santa Monica Farmers' Market Victims' Assistance Fund has so far paid out about $90,000 of the $150,000 collected from businesses and individuals, according to Tom Larmore, an attorney who helped start the fund. Families of the 10 who died received $5,000 each. About 25 victims with serious injuries, including Khani, got $2,500 each.

Khani's family was grateful for the money, even though it covered a fraction of her medical bills. Medicare will cover about 90% of the $400,000 in hospital fees and about 80% of her rehabilitation care for three months, Dan Khani said. The family is pooling resources to cover its portion of the costs and has not yet decided whether to sue the city or Weller.

"No amount of money could repay us for what we've lost," said Ed Khani, another son.

"Like Moses, she is our leader, both physically and spiritually," said Odette "Laudie" Freed, a granddaughter of the woman who immigrated from Tehran 40 years ago. "But I do not believe God has yet said to her, 'Enough.' "

Khani, who had a pacemaker implanted two years ago, typically made two trips each Wednesday to the outdoor market with her rolling cart, filling it with fresh fruit and vegetables, said Daisy Tamai, an Oxnard farmer who has known her for 14 years.

"She comes early in the morning, then in the afternoon," said Tamai, who until the tragedy had known Khani only by her first name. On her morning excursion from her nearby condo, Khani would select the finest produce, then she would return in search of bargains. From Tamai Farms, she mainly wanted overripe tomatoes.

"She would take my soft tomatoes home in the morning and come back and bring me a dish made with them," Tamai said. For other vendors, she made chicken and rice.

Tamai was not working at her booth on that day, but her sister-in-law and niece were. They called Tamai to say that her friend Shamsi probably would not survive because she had lost so much blood.

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