Steve Averbach was riding the Egged No. 6 bus in Jerusalem on the morning of May 18, 2003 when a Palestinian terrorist disguised as a Chassidic Jew boarded the bus near the French Hill neighborhood. As a gun instructor, police officer and former Golani soldier, Averbach was trained to search crowds for suspicious people.
He noted the man's clean-shaven face and telltale bulge of explosives and reached for his weapon. His act scared the terrorist into detonating himself prematurely, saving an untold number of lives. He blew up a near-empty bus instead of waiting for the Downtown crowds. Hamas took responsibility for the attack.
A steel ball bearing tore into his spine, forever altering his lifeAverbach's severely wounded body was found in the wreckage. Glass had punctured his lungs. A steel ball bearing tore into his spine, forever altering his life. His hand was still on the trigger of his gun. He was barely conscious but he mustered enough strength to inform police that his gun was loaded. He didn't want anyone to get hurt.
An investigation confirmed that the bomber had planned an explosion in the center of town. Averbach had prevented dozens of deaths and was given a government award for bravery.
His heroism earned him fans the world over. He received letters and visitors from France, Australia and North Carolina. Actor Christopher Reeve visited Averbach as he was recovering at Sheba Medical Center to talk to him about stem cell research.
But Averbach's exhibition of courage wasn't over.
The strong and courageous soldier and gun instructor, whose prowess with weapons won him the nickname "Guns," now remained confined to a wheelchair, unable to even scratch his nose. He was paralyzed from the neck down, a prisoner in his body. Nevertheless, the 37-year-old father of four insisted on living his life without regrets.
"If I had to, I would do it all again," he said of his split-second choice to pull his gun on the terrorist instead of fleeing for his safety. "It was required of me… If I wouldn't have done anything, I wouldn't have been able to live with myself."
He admitted in an interview in 2004 that he missed playing Frisbee with his four sons, taking them to the beach and teaching them to ride a bike. And yet, as his aide held a straw to his mouth so he could sip a drink, he asserted, "I made a choice. My choice was the correct one, so I can live with the outcome."
"He talked to everyone and they were changed from the experience"Not content to spend the remainder of his life as a quiet spectator, he became an activist. He spoke to crowds from Bar Ilan University, Young Judea, Birthright Israel, and at Jewish centers and synagogues throughout America. He talked about making a difference in the world and what it meant to sacrifice for the Jewish people.
He made an impact on everyone he met, said his sister, Eileen Sapadin of Englewood. "He was very much alive. Whatever he had left to give, he gave. He talked to everyone and they were changed from the experience."
Averbach saw beyond his personal suffering, and wanted to help the many people in Israel whose lives were affected by terrorist attacks. Although traveling was difficult for him, he opted to raise funds by speaking to groups throughout the world. Through speaking engagements, he raised thousands of dollars for Tikvot, an Israeli non-profit organization which helps rehabilitate terror victims and their families through sports activities. Averbach was appointed the organization's vice president.
Sapadin's husband, Allen Sapadin, a Hackensack dermatologist, said he was never surprised by Averbach's bravery on the bus in 2003. But he was amazed and awed by Averbach's courage every day since he became a quadriplegic.
"Even with his suffering, he said he would do it all again and meant it," he said. "He never expressed anger or bitterness about his situation. He felt his job was to protect Israel. That's something he would never have relinquished. That's how dedicated he was to Israel."
Eileen, added, "He suffered quietly. He didn't complain." After the attack, he didn't describe himself as a victim of terror, but as a survivor of terror.
Even before Averbach boarded Bus No. 6, he led a noble life, Eileen said. "He moved to Israel by himself when he was just a teenager. He joined the army, and not just any unit, but the most elite unit. He trained experts to fight terrorism. He had such a love for Israel. He wanted people to understand how important it was to support Israel. He wanted people to be educated about their duty to defend themselves."
Averbach grew up in West Long Branch, New Jersey and was a restless teenager, popular among his classmates at Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean Township. He visited Israel in 1982 at age 16 and instantly fell in love with the country. "He felt at home there," said his mother, Maida Averbach, a nurse in Long Branch. "Once he went to Israel, he felt he had to live there. He told me, 'These are my people.'"
Although he didn't know any Hebrew at the time, the moment he got off the plane, he realized Israel was totally unique and wanted to stay. "The love for the country fell right over me," he told a newspaper reporter years later.
He didn't describe himself as a victim of terror, but as a survivor of terrorHe made aliyah at age 18 and joined the elite Golani unit of the IDF, fighting in Lebanon and Gaza. He later worked in the Jerusalem Police Department's anti-terrorist unit and as an instructor at a school that trains police officers and security firms.
Rabbi Howie Jachter, Judaic Studies Instructor at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, New Jersey, dedicated a book to Averbach in 2003. The book is a compilation of original insights, by students, on the Talmud, said Jachter. Averbach spoke at the school and left a strong impression on everyone who heard his story. "We wanted to do something, so we decided to dedicate the book to him because of his heroism and dedication to the Nation and Land of Israel. We also did it in support of Steve's nephew, Daniel Sapadin, a member of the class."
Israel's fearless man of steel died in his sleep on June 3, 2010 at age 44, a result of complications from his paralysis… But not before inspiring hundreds around the world who met him, were saved by him, and heard the tale of his selfless love for Israel.
Several hundred mourners accompanied Averbach to his final resting place in Jerusalem's Har HaMenuchot cemetery. Among them were members of the Israeli police, IDF, people whose lives he saved, and friends and admirers from all walks of life.
"He was brave," Maida Averbach said. "He didn't like his situation but he was brave. He dealt with it as best he could. And he helped other terror victims too. He rose to the occasion. He inspired people."