National News

Survivor of Halloween Terror Attack Says She Will Not Be a Victim

Posted May 21, 2018 10:54 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The cast she used to keep her broken bones in place and her crutches with the purple padding are stuffed inside a hallway closet. The cane she occasionally relies on to walk around the city leans against a drawer in her living room.

Inside the drawer is the brace she uses to stabilize her ankle. And nearby, on the floor, sits a blue plastic stand she repurposed as a shower seat for when standing became too painful in the first weeks of her recovery.

Seven months ago on Halloween, Rachel Pharn was sideswiped by a pickup truck in a terror attack on a Manhattan bicycle path that left eight people dead and 11 others injured. The events of that day, Oct. 31, 2017, play like a video on repeat in her head — the blood, the crushed bodies and the mangled bicycles left behind when the truck plowed down the crowded bike path, in the shadow of 1 World Trade Center, along the Hudson River.

The truck crushed her foot and badly bruised her shoulder and arm.

“The first week, I was in such disbelief that I was alive,” Pharn, 26, said last month in her first interview since the attack. “I couldn’t believe I escaped death.”

For a while she felt guilty. She wished she could have done something to warn people who had their backs to the driver, identified as Sayfullo Saipov.

Saipov, 29, an Uzbek national who lived in Paterson, New Jersey, was charged with eight counts of murder in aid of racketeering activity. He has pleaded not guilty.

Pharn, who lives across the river from the site of the attack in West New York, New Jersey, spent monthslearning to walk again. She recently returned to work as a math teacher at an after-school program at Merit Academy in Fort Lee, New Jersey, first going in twice a week and working her way up to four days a week. She also does some consulting for a software startup in Brooklyn.

After the attack, she wore a heart monitor for a month and had severe headaches, she said. She developed arthritis in her knees, affecting her ability to exercise the way she once did.

At first, completing routine chores like laundry, cooking and cleaning were difficult, she said. Neighbors and friends chipped in to help. She is receiving physical therapy to strengthen her leg and foot.

But she struggles with nightmares about the attack and has night sweats, she said. She has sought help from a psychiatrist. A transplant from Orange County, California, who graduated from New York University in 2014, Pharn was spending Halloween with a friend who had also moved from the West Coast to New York City. The two women walked along the Hudson River to the World Trade Center, Pharn said.

Somewhere along the way, Pharn lost her wallet. It turned up at a Chase Bank, so she rented a CitiBike and pedaled along the Hudson River bike path because she “thought it would be safe,” she said. After retrieving her wallet, she took the same route back.

Five minutes after getting onto the path at about 3 p.m., she saw the pickup truck heading toward her. She began moving to the side, but the driver never slowed. She watched as the people on bikes ahead of her “flew into the air.”

“I often replay the experience. It’s so vivid, so clear,” she said, adding that for years she had focused solely on excelling in the software industry. “We’re tricked into thinking we need all of this stuff somehow.”

The terror attack, she said, jolted her into reprioritizing what was most important in her life.

“I try to remember what I experienced to remind me to appreciate my life and all of the opportunities that come,” she said. “When everything happened, I just wanted to see my family and friends again.”

Part of Pharn’s recovery was documented in an eight-minute film by Meera Joshi, a friend from NYU. Joshi, 27, said she felt compelled to capture Pharn’s recovery because it is important to “humanize the people involved in these incidents,” and perhaps, she added, it could empower others.

“You just see numbers in a newspaper,” Joshi said. “Putting a voice and a face to it builds greater empathy in general.”

For Pharn, the documentary was also her chance to define what she is not: “I don’t want to be a victim.”

“With the word ‘victim’ everyone says, ‘You must be so traumatized.’ And they worried that I was going to be like what I thought I was going to be — afraid,” she said in an interview.

Six of the people who died in the attack were tourists, including five Argentine men who were part of a group that had traveled to New York City for their 30th high school reunion and a young mother from Belgium in town for a family trip. A computer scientist from Manhattan and a financial worker from New Jersey were also mowed down by the pickup truck and killed.

The documentary has given Pharn a chance to address Saipov directly, through a poem titled, “A Letter to My Terrorist.”

I wish you could see the world the way I do. I wish you could cherish it the way I do. I wish you could care for it the way I do. I think I see a monster in you,” she wrote. “I wish I could ease your suffering. I wish I could make you seek redemption. I wish I could make you see the pain you caused. I wish I could show you what your blaming cost.” Prosecutors said that Saipov had spent about a year planning the attack after he viewed a video in which ISIS questioned the killing of Muslims in Iraq.

In January, his lawyers proposed a plea deal: Saipov would plead guilty and accept life in prison without parole if prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.

“The defense is mindful of the concerns of the victims and their families’ need for closure,” the lawyers wrote. “We continue to be hopeful that we will be able to persuade the government not to seek the death penalty to avoid the need for protracted constitutionally mandated legal proceedings.”

The government has not said whether it will accept the guilty plea offer.

Pharn said prosecutors asked her how she felt about the death penalty in this case: “I told them I wasn’t opposed to it,” she said. “I was imagining why someone would do this. My dream is to get him to apologize.”