AACI Memorial Ceremony to Include Fallen Hero of 2003 Suicide Bus Attack

Riding a bus, Steve Averbach spotted terrorist, who set off bomb prematurely

Steve Averbach- 2008

Steve Averbach used to take his motorcycle to work, but after his license was temporarily revoked in 2003 he was regularly picked up by a colleague. One Sunday morning in May of that year, the 37-year-old immigrant from New Jersey missed his ride and was forced to take the bus. At 5:45 A.M., he boarded the no. 6 bus in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood.

A few minutes later, Averbach, a shooting instructor who served for years in an elite army brigade and later in the police's anti-terror unit, saw a man dressed like a Haredi getting on the bus. Recognizing immediately that the man was a suicide bomber in disguise, he reached for his gun. But when the terrorist saw Averbach, he quickly detonated his explosive belt. His bomb immediately killed seven people and seriously wounded 20 others, including Averbach, who was permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

This summer, after seven years during which the father of four was in and out of hospitals and rehabs but also managed to inspire countless people and raise tens of thousands of dollars for terror victims, Averbach died in his sleep at the age of 44. His name is soon to be added to the Association of American and Canadians in Israel's memorial plaque, next to the names of 300 other North Americans who fell in service to the state of Israel or as terror victims. AACI's annual memorial ceremony will take place on October 25, at the organization's Memorial Forest near the Sha'ar Hagai junction.

"Steve noticed that his shoes weren't matching his clothes," his widow Julie, 44, said about the terrorist who killed her husband. According to the Foreign Ministry website and several media reports, Averbach was able to see through the suicide bomber's masquerade because he was clean shaven. But Julie insists it was the footwear that gave him away. "That's what Steve told me," she said in an interview with Anglo File at her home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ganei Tikvah.

'Courageous, brave and selfless'

Police later determined that the terrorist planned to blow himself up in a more crowded area to raise the death toll. Israel's public security minister at the time told Averbach that an investigation "revealed that you were courageous, brave and selfless in attempting to prevent a mortal attack."

Following his release from the hospital 14 months later, the couple and their two sons moved from Jerusalem to a quiet street in Ganei Tikvah. Julie made their house handicap accessible for her husband; the ball bearing that had hit his spine left him quadriplegic, unable to take a sip of water unassisted.

"It was hell - seven years of hell," Julie told Anglo File this week on their veranda, right next to her late husband's room. While dozens of framed photos all over the house make him ever-present, she donated most of the specialized furniture in his now almost empty room to Yad Sarah, an organization aiding the elderly and disabled.

"For the last two or three years, I saw that he was not the same person anymore," Julie said. "He was taking 50 pills just to make it through the day. He took pills for depression and other [ailments], which made him very weak. He was a very strong person, never took pills in his life." In the months before his death, the pain grew stronger, his memory became shaky and he had a hard time speaking, Julie said. The hero whom the media celebrated as "man of spiritual steel" had grown tired.

On June 3, after Julie returned from a morning jog, she found him unresponsive and immediately called the ambulance. "They tried to resuscitate him like they had done in the past when he didn't wake up, but when they wanted to try electric shocks I didn't let them. That's it, that's enough. He suffered enough, really," she said, visibly choked up. "It wasn't a life. It was suffering every day. Every day."

'We never stopped'

But despite the hardship, "Steve Guns," as his friends called him, always said that since he made the right decision trying to thwart the attack, he could live with the outcome.

"He never for a second regretted what he did, not at all," said Julie, a native Jerusalemite whose mother, Kathleen Cohen, hailed from London. "Since day one [after the attack] we never showed anyone that life ended, we just kept doing just the same, if not more," she explained. "We were still traveling, doing fun things, we never stopped."

At the same time, Julie, who left her accounting job to care for Steve and currently plans a new career as an interior designer, life on the inside was hard. "We were crying and talking about it all the time. In the beginning it was even very hard to bond with Steve, because he wasn't accepting anything," she said. "He didn't want to talk to anyone, didn't want to eat with us, was depressed all the time. But after a while he realized that this is it, and learned to cope with it little by little."

Conquering difficult logistic challenges, Averbach became involved in several philanthropic endeavors, traveling around the world to raise funds for nonprofits rehabilitating young victims of terror through sports, and other organizations. He also greeted hundreds of visitors in his house and told them his story, inspiring some of them to move to Israel.

Averbach himself felt drawn to Israel since his first visit here in his youth. "When I got off the plane, it's hard to describe, but the love for the country fell right over me," he once told reporters about immigrating to Israel on his own at age 16. The day before the ultimately fatal attack, Averbach's wife suggested leaving Israel, at least for the duration of the intifada. "I said let's get out of here for a few years and then we'll come back," said Julie. "He said, never, forget it, it's out of the question. He loved Israel, he couldn't see himself anywhere else." Even after his injury he never considered returning to the U.S., despite their daily struggle with local bureaucracies trying to get him the care he needed.

Four months after her husband's death, Julie looks and sounds dejected. While talking to Anglo File, the sorrowful expression on her face only gave way to a smile when she recalled meeting Steve in a local bar in the early 1990s. Engaged to an American and living in the U.S. at the time, she returned to Israel for a month to attend a friend's wedding. "I started working as a bartender, and my first night he came in. That's how it started - he left me a big tip," she said laughingly. "I didn't go back to the States. I went to the airport and I told my mom: I don't want to go. She said, so don't go."

Averbach is survived by Julie and their two sons, Sean, 15, and Adam, 10, as well as two sons from a previous marriage: Tamir, 20, and Dvir, 17, both of Modi'in. Averbach is also survived by his parents, David and Maida, his brother Michael and his sister Eileen Sapadin, all of whom reside in the U.S.