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Wednesday, June 11, 2003

I can hardly bring myself to post this.

"We will continue to live here.
We will continue to be strong."

"People burned like torches"

by Tovah Lazaroff, Jerusalem Post

"I saw a woman going up in flames, as if she were a torch. Her clothes burned first and then her skin," said Eli Shmueli as he described the Jerusalem suicide bomb attack that killed 16 and wounded 100 others.

A parking inspector for the city, Shmueli, 36, was standing by the Clal Building on Jaffa Road late Wednesday afternoon when he heard the explosion. He turned to see a bus full of burning people.

Shmueli ran toward them. There was no glass left in the mangled bus. So he was able to reach inside to try and help douse the flames on people's skins, slightly hurting his own hands in the process.

"It was a barbecue, people burned like torches," he said. It was worse, he said, than anything he had seen at Yad Vashem.

Shmueli was one of a number of wounded who walked or were taken by ambulance to Bikur Holim Hospital, only a short distance from the attack. Lying on a hospital bed, Virginia Arbeli, 24, from the Philippines, said she had been standing at the bus station waiting for another bus, when she saw bus No. 14A arrive and pull away.

"I was standing there, my bus hadn't arrived yet. I saw the bus come, a regular day. I saw the driver; he was so happy, and he turned to get closer to the bus stop. He stopped and then I heard the blast and saw the smoke. I was standing there looking at the bus and it exploded.

"People were shouting and I thought, 'dead people,' and many people were dead. How can I say it, I saw a man, I thought he was alive, he was standing there, I thought he was shocked. But when they pulled him over he was dead," she said, clenching her first as she spoke.

Arbeli said she saw another man she thought was lying down asking for help, with his hand out the window, but he too was dead. She stood shocked for a few minutes and then went to one of the shops, still shaking. She tried calling her husband, but no one answered. She was taken by ambulance to Bikur Holim where her husband found her.

"Who would expect that kind of thing?" she said. But it wasn't exactly a surprise, she said, in light of the attempted killing of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi on Tuesday. She had wondered if it would be dangerous to be downtown, but then decided if it was her time, so be it.

Ariel, 8, Amichai, 6, and their mother Ayelet Yair, were among the lucky ones to make it off the bus almost unscathed. They were sitting in the back seats, on their way to town to buy a present for Ariel. Stroking his cheek, his mother Ayelet said she had wanted to reward him for remembering to count the Omer every day. Two men helped them exit the bus out the back window. They walked to the hospital because Ayelet was slightly wounded.

Outside the bus at the time of the explosion, two other small boys, Idan Gavriel, 3, and Shaun, 5, were standing with their aunt and father looking for a bathroom for Idan. They never had a chance to find it.

In Bikur Holim Hospital, they described for reporters what they saw. "I saw people wounded and afterwards I saw soldiers," said Idan in a quiet voice, as he sat on his aunt's lap. "We stood next to it [the bus] and saw all the flames. The roof flew off," said Shaun, sitting on his mother's lap. Both boys wore identical white T-shirts with the number 39 on them. The aunt, Chaya Isachar said that the boys were still scared. When looking for a bathroom in the hospital, Idan told his aunt, "I'm afraid, will there be another explosion?"

Their mother, Limor, said she was inside the Clal Building when she heard the explosion."I went crazy," she said. Luckily, she was able to reach her sister by telephone, but news that everyone was all right calmed her only slightly. "I just wanted to get to them," she said. Anni Yarodis was walking out of a store when she heard the explosion. "I saw torn flesh on the street and blood," she said. Her mother, Aviva, heard about the attack in their home in Ramat Aviv and panicked. Hearing her daughter's voice on the phone was only slightly helpful. She and her husband raced to Jerusalem, still imagining the worst. She calmed down only upon finding her daughter in the hospital. The women stood in the hall, hugging each other tightly, in the crowded hall.

Speaking to reporters before leaving Bikur Holim Hospital, Shmueli said he had been lucky. Since turning 36, he noted that his age was double 18, the numerical meaning for the Hebrew word "Hai," which means life. Until Tuesday, he described his age as "double hai." Now, he said, he will tell people, he is "triple hai," because his life was saved.

The images he saw will stay with him, said Shmueli. It isn't the first time he has seen people burn. At age six, he saw his mother burn to death in a fire. The sight of the woman on the bus brought that trauma back. Still, he plans to return to work Thursday as usual.

Looking at her two boys, Ayelet Yair said: "We will continue to live here. We will continue to be strong."