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Terrorist bullet still digs deep

Five years ago, grandmother Sarah Phillips was at the center of a gunman's attack at LAX. Not all of her wounds have healed.

June 07, 2007|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Toronto — ON July 4, 2002, Sarah Phillips was checking in at Los Angeles International Airport for her trip home to Canada after a vacation with friends. The first flight she could get to arrive in time for a grandson's birthday was a connection through Toronto offered by the Israel-based airline, El Al.

As she stood in line in the Tom Bradley International Terminal, Egyptian immigrant Hesham Mohamed Hadayet was parking his Mercedes-Benz in a garage across the street. Dressed in a dark suit jacket and carrying two handguns and a 6-inch knife, he walked into the ticketing lobby and without a word opened fire at the El Al ticket counter.

Phillips watched as the ticket agent who had just pointed her toward a security line fell from her seat, shot dead. Thinking for a split second it was fireworks, Phillips then felt herself sinking to the floor, a shot shredding the tendons of her right ankle.

"I was on my knees waiting for the next bullet to kill me execution-style," Phillips recounted.

As seconds ticked by Phillips watched a wounded man on the terrazzo floor a few feet away.

"He had his face turned away from me, and he was moving ever so slightly, and then he stopped," she said. "I could almost feel his spirit coming across the floor."

"I was praying 'finish me now' because I wanted to go with him," she continued. "I wanted to be where he was because I felt the peace coming from him."

Moments after Hadayet fired 10 rounds into the crowd, he was shot by an El Al security guard, the wounds causing him to "howl like a wolf that had been trapped," Phillips said. "That scream will live with me forever." After a scuffle with several El Al guards and a bystander, the gunman died.

Phillips awoke minutes later on her back, staring up at girders lining the terminal ceiling. Paramedics took her to the nearby Centinela Airport Medical Clinic.

Phillips used a medic's cellphone to call her son Andrew.

He said his mother told him that she had been shot, and she wasn't sure if she would live. "My instant reaction was that I needed to get there," he said.

When Andrew arrived from Toronto, he found his mother propped up, ankle swathed in white bandages, on a bed stuffed into a broom closet. The room was considered more secure than regular wards because police were concerned about other attackers. An armed guard was posted outside.

FBI investigators later found that Hadayet had planned his attack out of anger over Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Killed in the shooting were Victoria Hen, 25, an immigrant from Israel working as a ticket agent for a company under contract with El Al, and the man who died lying next to Phillips, Jacob Aminov, 46, of North Hollywood, a diamond importer and father of five who was at the airport to see off friends leaving for Israel.

Phillips underwent surgery to repair the tendons damaged by the gunshot. A week later she flew home. The injury left her unable to bend her ankle and forced her to turn her right foot outward, altering her gait. The shift in the way she walked re-injured her right hip, which had been surgically repaired months before the shooting.

In some ways, it was the least of her problems. She had survived the first terrorist attack at an airport in the United States, but the aftermath would prove to be another matter.

CLUMPS of dirty snow sit stubbornly under the pines in a tiny 99-year-old village two hours north of Toronto. It's early spring this year as Phillips, a 65-year-old Irish Canadian, hobbles down the main street in Coldwater, a village of 1,000 residents. She greets everyone she passes by name.

The Dollar Store owners say they've missed her since she shuttered her business next door in 2005.

After the shooting, Phillips quit her job counseling pregnant teens, sold her cottage in a Toronto suburb, moved to Coldwater and opened a dressmaking shop. The grandmother of eight said she was too emotionally traumatized by the shooting to continue her work with unwed mothers. Selling the house and opening a business was her way, she said, of "trying to make an abnormal life normal."

Friends and relatives say she quickly had more work than she could handle.

"Everyone was flocking to her -- it was the first time someone with her talent offered that service," Andrew said.

Before moving into an apartment above her shop, Phillips lived briefly with Andrew, his wife and three sons, in a home near the center of town. It was then, Andrew said, that he realized how the attack had "completely changed her emotionally."

In times past, "Anyone who needed anything, she would give it to them, her heart and soul," he said. But after the shooting, she became angry and forgetful.

The most striking change, Andrew said, and one Phillips acknowledges, is that she began to make a series of poor decisions, including selling her cottage.

The shooting "changed her judgment," Andrew recalled. "She was very level-headed. The mistakes she's made since are mind-boggling."

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