Grieving family focuses on plane crash survivor's recovery

Category: Charity Work | Posted by: maryp
Article Date: August 16, 2010 | Publication: TribLocal | Author: Lisa Black, Tribune reporter
Publication/Article Link:TribLocal

Israeli 13-year-old lost Skokie grandfather, 2 sisters, cousin in tragedy

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — —

Yossi Menora isn't ready to talk about the crash.

He winces at the words "burn" and " skin graft."

When an occupational therapist pushes him to stretch his healing skin, the slight boy with sandy red hair controls his breathing and imagines himself in another place, a sparkling beach.

Sima Menora rarely leaves the hospital bedside of her 13-year-old son.

She knows the ravaging pain of losing her two daughters, Rebecca and Rachel, is looming, but she is somehow able to keep it at a distance. For now she is focused on Yossi, the sole survivor of the July plane crash that took the lives of his sisters, a cousin and his grandfather, a Skokie businessman.

Yossi managed to unbuckle his seat belt and scramble out a window as flames engulfed the twin-engine Beech 58, which had slammed down moments after takeoff.

He was severely burned on his arms and legs and now endures daily and painful rehabilitation. His mother is attentive and intense, quietly encouraging him. She has thrived on the positive attitudes of others and drawn on her faith in God.

"At some point, you have to let go and realize you can't control everything," she said.

Yossi and his sisters were visiting their grandparents in Skokie on July 13, when Moshe Menora, 73, flew the grandchildren to the Mackinac Island area on his private plane.

He had taken them on similar day trips before. But this time, the plane made two unsuccessful attempts to take off for the return flight home before it crashed about 1,000 feet from the runway at Mackinac County Airport in St. Ignace, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators.

Killed were Moshe Menora; Yossi's sisters, Rebecca, 16; Rachel, 14; and his cousin, Sara Klein, 17.

Critically injured when he arrived at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, Yossi has undergone three surgeries. He started walking two weeks ago.

"Take one day at a time," said Yossi, who is a long way from his home in Israel. He hopes to return in time to start ninth grade with his friends.

The burns covered 40 percent of his body. Skin grafts from his stomach and back now cover areas of his arms and legs. During grueling therapy sessions, he stretches his skin to avoid scarring and maintain flexibility.

"He's got some inner strength," said Sima Menora, whose family made her leave the hospital for a few days to get rest. "He has a good attitude, so people want to talk to him."

The teen talks about his sisters, mostly swapping stories about better days.

Rebecca, known as Rikki, was about to enter 12th grade. Rachel was prepared to enter 10th grade.

"My daughters were two beautiful girls," said their father, Shalom Menora. The oldest told him, " 'I want to work for you.' Then as she got a little older, she said she wants to be my partner. Then she got a little older and said, 'I want to be your boss — you're not that good.' "

Their cousin Sara was an accomplished seamstress who designed her own clothes and styled hair, lining up "many devoted customers," her mother, Kelly Klein of Jerusalem, wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.

"Sara and all my children loved to visit the grandparents in Chicago," wrote Klein, who has eight other children. "We are a large family so we didn't often go all together to visit my parents. So in the summer, I liked to send two children at a time to spend quality time with their grandparents, who spoiled them rotten."

The biggest treat, she said, was to fly on her father's plane.

Shalom Menora speculated that the crash was caused by an engine failure. He felt sure that his father believed it was safe to take off, even if it was the third attempt. The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate what caused the crash and why the first two takeoff attempts were aborted.

"When I have a few minutes to stop and think, it hits me," said Menora, who was in Florida on business when the plane crashed. Since then, he has traveled to Israel for the funerals and between Ann Arbor and Skokie, where his mother is dealing with the death of her husband.

Yossi talked about the crash the first week, but has since avoided the topic, Menora said. One day they discussed returning home after he is released from the hospital. Yossi told him he wasn't sure about flying, suggesting that maybe they take a boat.

"It depends on the day," said Menora, describing the boy's changing moods.

Yossi has been concerned about other patients he met in intensive care, said Menora, who is divorced from Sima.

"He always wants to know how the other patients are doing," he said. "This guy fell out of a tree and broke his neck. Another was cut by a propeller in a boat. All the families get extremely close."

On Monday, Yossi was moved out of the hospital's burn and trauma unit, and into a pediatric rehabilitation unit.

He thrives on encouragement from his two older brothers, both of whom took leave from the Israeli Army to spend time with him over the past week.

Yehuda, 18, on Wednesday joined Yossi for therapy, teasing him at times and encouraging him.

Yossi wore hospital garb and a neck brace, his yarmulke pinned atop his head. He attempted to stand up several times on his own, prompting a therapist to warn him to take it slow.

During therapy, he walked a few steps from his wheelchair, then cautiously crawled onto a gym mat. He slowly inched toward the center, as the therapist told him how to lie down in a way that lessens the pain. He sighed with relief when he reached a comfortable position, only to grimace again when the therapist started to gently stretch a bandaged arm, revealing his raw, slightly clawed hands.

Yehuda whispered something in Yossi's ear, helping the teen to grin and bear it.

Breathing deeply, a technique he learned from a rabbi, Yossi burst out laughing when the therapist asked him which arm hurt. It seemed obvious to him, as she stretched his right arm.

The rabbi teaches breathing techniques and martial arts to help cancer survivors cope with pain. Over the past month, he shared some lessons with Yossi.

"You breathe and you picture a place you want to be in, and imagine yourself there and listen to what you would hear there," Yossi said, describing how he uses the method to get through therapy. "You are not in that painful place."

He imagines being on the beach.

Yossi was excited to receive a phone call from one of the rabbi's students, actor Gerard Butler — a star in "300" — who told the teen he was an inspiration.

After the plane crash, the families devoted seven days to mourning, a practice called "shiva." In Israel, "literally thousands of people came through our door," Klein wrote, regarding Sara's death.

Another daughter, Leah, 10, decided to skip the plane ride the day of the crash.

"Only in the end will we be able to clearly see the good," Klein wrote.

Meanwhile, Yossi's mother has kept family and friends informed through Web sites such as caringbridge.org.

Sima Menora is thankful for the support from the Jewish community, the hospital staff and others from Chicago to Detroit to Israel.

"I have seen a lot of pain here," she said. "You see people who are the emotional survivors and people who fall apart. The people who do well have a good attitude and strong faith."

On Wednesday, Yossi's playful attitude glimmered. While watching national news on television, he saw footage from an Alaskan plane crash that took the life of former Sen. Ted Stevens.

The news commentator noted that a boy who survived was 13.

"Thirteen is a lucky number," said Yossi, who turns 14 next month.