I have been asked by so many, “if you had to do it again, would you drive between the gunman and his targets?
They all wonder, would they?
Let me explain. On June 7, I came face-to-face with 23-year-old John Zawahiri, the man now known as the person responsible for a mass shooting at Santa Monica College.
I saw Zawahiri point his gun at another woman. I drove my car between her and the gunman to protect her
The people who ask me if I would do what I did all over again also want to know what thoughts I had before I made the decision to hit the accelerator.
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I tell them there were none. -- It was a cellular response to saving someone who could not save their self.
People have asked me what Zawahiri looked and acted like when he stared at me at that moment and shot me. – We would later learn that he had just shot and killed his father and brother.
I tell them that there was absolutely nothing even remotely resembling a human being in his eyes or movements.
I have since learned from a police detective that he had planned the shooting on June 7 for almost two years.
He had run through this exact scenario many times.
The detective believes that when I acted, and threw an unknown element into his plan, it shook him up and “derailed” him.
On that day, June 7, John Zwahari had already shot and killed his father and brother. He had burned their house down. By the time I encountered him, he was launched on a mission to kill as many people that he could. He had walked out of the burning house with his semi-automatic rifle and 1,300 rounds of ammunition.
We’ve learned all this since the shooting that ultimately took six lives – there were five victims plus the shooter.
Here’s what I’ve also learned since that day in June.
I now realize that one single action taken by just one, single person, can change the outcome of an entire event.
That morning, my life changed forever.
I still remember like it was yesterday.
I had turned my car onto a side street [in Santa Monica??]. I was just looking for a shortcut. I wanted to bypass traffic. And then, I was met by a terrifying sight.
I suddenly saw a man in full tactical gear, wearing a bulletproof vest, carrying an automatic rifle. And, he was aiming it at one of his neighbors and motioning for a woman in a car to pull over to the side of the road.
People ask me, “Why didn’t you run the b*stard over?”
I wasn’t thinking like that.
President Obama was in town that day. This man was dressed in clothing that I imagined a member of his security team might wear.
Hitting a member of the president’s security detail did not seem like an option!
But Zawahiri’s stance was tense and aggressive.
His weapon was pointed directly at two women.
Then I realized that he couldn’t have been part of the security team or even a SWAT team.
I suddenly knew he was going to shoot them.
Without any further thought, I hit my accelerator to get my car between the man with the rifle and his targets.
We locked eyes, his targets temporarily forgotten.
He was standing 10 feet away from the front of my car. He was on a mission of execution and suddenly, I was in his way.
I was shot five times. There was no reason for me to have survived except that I was in motion, in the car, and he was walking.
Neighbors called 911 as the shooter got into a woman’s car and made her drive.
Suddenly, he did not have time to shoot her – the police were on their way.
I was rushed to the UCLA Trauma Center and I have undergone three surgeries since then.
I have learned many things in the last four months. One of them is that shootings and crime can occur in any neighborhood.
I’ve learned that every day really does matter.
I’ve learned that an involved community can spot a potential danger and even help prevent it. That our teachers have a strong influence on students, bringing out responsibility and creativity. I saw that firsthand when I spoke at the L.A Film School.
I have had the honor of meeting so many people who came from abusive backgrounds, who have suffered from neglect and had very little chance at a healthy life. I’ve learned that one person can step up to help them and they can succeed.
I have learned that I am not a victim just because I was beaten up and bullied as a teenager.
I was in the wrong place with kids who had, I later found out, been bullied by their own parents.
I learned that there is prejudice that is still out there. After the attack, in my hospital bed, news networks and television stations asked me to speak to the families and all of the communities in shock over the shooting.
I tried to put some pieces together for those that weren’t there.
I told the real story of what happened that day. I tried to reach out to those who had been hit by the tragedy.
What was almost as hard to believe as this senseless killing, were some of the posts about it on a website [what’s the name of the website? Or would you rather not say?] such as:
“This was a set up, it must have been a Zionist conspiracy.”
“This was only reported because it’s a woman and she’s from a decent neighborhood”.
Were there really still people out there who couldn’t believe what was in front of them because of their own hate?
I let it go and moved on.
I am, in turn, here to help others.
I was on a flight coming back to Los Angeles, when a woman sat next to me that was probably just going into her third trimester. All that I wanted to do was rest, I was tired. I tried contrary action and instead of just reading, I asked how far along she was.
The conversation turned quickly to a deep level. She has stage-three breast cancer and is six months pregnant.
I told her about the miracle doctor that delivered my twins, I told her about my own chest surgery because of the shooting.
I called my doctor for her after we got off the plane. She hugged me and said, there really are angels.
We pay it forward.
I believe the writer George Elliott, who posed as a man just to be published as an author, when she said “It’s Never TOO Late To Become What You Might Have Been.”
Debra Fine has begun to do public speaking on her experience with John Zawahiri. She is also writing a book, "Wake Up Call: From Trauma to Triumph" which is a compilation of stories by those who have triumphed over severe trauma. Fine is the founder of The Fine Line Foundation which is focused on support and community building for the mentally ill and victims of violent crimes.