‘We never thought it would be her’


Cosmopolitan (Australia) - - Contents -

The third of June, 2017, was a day like any other for Sara Ze­le­nak, a 21-yearold from Bris­bane who had moved to Lon­don to work as a nanny like so many Aussies do af­ter fin­ish­ing high school. She had put the kids to bed and was given the rest of the evening off. A typ­i­cal 21-year-old, she de­cided to call her Au Pair friends to or­gan­ise a night out. When kick­ing on to a dif­fer­ent bar, Sara was caught up in some­thing she could never have pre­dicted: A ter­ror­ist at­tack.

‘Sara was the life and soul of the party. She loved to dance, knew how to twerk, and would just light up a room the sec­ond she walked in,’ ex­plains Sara’s mum, Julie. ‘She played rep­re­sen­ta­tive bas­ket­ball her whole life, but she was equally as ob­sessed with watch­ing Keep­ing Up With The Kar­dashi­ans,’ Sara’s dad, Mark, chimes in. ‘She knew far too much about celebri­ties – who they were, what they were worth, what they were do­ing at any point in time.’

Ob­sessed with shop­ping at Zara and be­rated by her par­ents for spend­ing too much money on eye­brow prod­ucts, Sara was just like any other Cosmo girl – hard work­ing, fun­lov­ing and ex­cited about what the fu­ture had in store for her. She had her sights set on be­ing a flight at­ten­dant one day, with Emi­rates be­ing her dream air­line, but as her best friend Sarah Bev­er­ley ex­plains, she felt a bit lost af­ter high school and de­cided to take a year off to go trav­el­ling.

‘When I found out Sarz was go­ing over­seas, I was re­ally happy for her,’ Sarah says. ‘Lots of her other friends, my­self in­cluded, jumped straight into uni – but that was never Sarz. So I was happy that she was go­ing to travel and be a nanny.’

Sara packed up her bags, and headed off to Lon­don to work as an Au Pair for a cou­ple of months be­fore trav­el­ling around Europe with her friends and fam­ily. Prior to jet­ting off she had some farewell hangs with her best mates on her night off. Noth­ing spe­cial, just chill­ing out at a friend’s house. Look­ing back, her best friend Sarah ad­mits, ‘If I knew that was the last time, I would have made so much more ef­fort.’

Sara set­tled into Lon­don life quickly, fall­ing in love with the en­er­getic streets of Soho, in Lon­don’s West End, and us­ing any spare sec­onds she had to book mini trips to Ire­land, Scot­land and Wales. Her mum ex­plains that she had a pretty hec­tic day with school pick­ups and drop­offs and of­ten vol­un­teered to do over­time on the week­ends, so when she was given an un­ex­pected night off from her Au Pair fam­ily, she would or­gan­ise din­ner and drinks with her

‘This is an aw­ful case of be­ing in the wrong place at the wrong time’

other nanny friends. On the night of June 3, her de­ci­sion to switch venues to meet up with an­other group of mates saw her walk­ing across Lon­don Bridge.

‘There were a thou­sand slid­ing doors that meant that Sara ended up be­ing ex­actly where she was go­ing to be,’ says Mark.

By some tragic twist of fate, it was at that mo­ment a white van sud­denly veered off the road and ploughed into pedes­tri­ans. Ob­vi­ously ter­ri­fied, but un­aware at this point that this was a ter­ror­ist at­tack, Sara tried to make a run for it and es­cape the chaos. As she at­tempted to get away, three vi­o­lent at­tack­ers leapt out of the van, chased and caught Sara and stabbed her in the throat.

Sara did noth­ing wrong. She did not pro­voke her at­tack­ers; she was not in­volved with the ter­ror­ists in any way, shape or form. She was just a girl on her gap year, walk­ing across a bridge.

Sara’s par­ents, Julie and Mark, first heard about the at­tacks from a friend who sim­ply said, ‘Did you hear about the Lon­don ter­ror­ist at­tacks?’ and they freely ad­mit that they weren’t even slightly con­cerned. ‘We hadn’t heard from Sara, but it was the mid­dle of the night for her, so we just as­sumed she was asleep.’

‘We knew Sara was in the city, but she was there with 13 mil­lion other peo­ple. She was a smart girl. She was an ath­letic girl, so if any­one was go­ing to get away, it would be Sarz. We re­ally weren’t wor­ried about her safety,’ ex­plains Julie.

Her best friend, Sarah, re­acted in a sim­i­lar way, sim­ply see­ing news of the at­tack on the telly and in­no­cently drop­ping Sara a mes­sage on a group chat with a pic of the TV, say­ing, ‘Oh Sarz, you’re all good, right?’ While back in Bris­bane, Sarah ad­mits, ‘I didn’t re­ally think any­thing of it be­cause we had all done the same thing when the Ar­i­ana Grande con­cert bomb­ing hap­pened lit­er­ally a month be­fore, and just a few hours later Sarz texted back with, “Yep, I’m all good girls!” But this time we didn’t hear from her.’

When Mark and Julie didn’t get their reg­u­lar What­sApp up­date from their daugh­ter, con­cerns were raised. They re­ceived a phone call from Sara’s Au Pair fam­ily say­ing that she hadn’t come home from a night out with her friends. Pan­icked, Mark and Julie con­tacted one of Sara’s mates in Lon­don who con­firmed that their daugh­ter was def­i­nitely in and around that area the night be­fore.

It was then that Mark and Julie phoned the po­lice and of­fi­cially lodged Sara as a miss­ing per­son.

‘There are a mil­lion things run­ning through your mind dur­ing a time like this,’ Mark ex­plains, but on the days that fol­lowed Sara’s dis­ap­pear­ance, he fran­ti­cally rang every sin­gle hospi­tal in Lon­don to try and find his daugh­ter. Soon enough, the Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice were knock­ing on their front door.

Mark and Julie still didn’t know whether Sara was in­jured, miss­ing, or even alive. Frus­trated, con­cerned and ter­ri­fied, they de­cided to book the next flight to Lon­don – to get them­selves to Sara’s side as soon as pos­si­ble.

How­ever, as Sara’s par­ents touched down in Abu Dhabi ready for their f light trans­fer, they re­ceived a phone call telling them that their daugh­ter had been killed.

‘We still had our seat­belts on when we were be­ing told that our Sara was dead. I went into com­plete shock and started scream­ing. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t hold my­self up. I was com­pletely hys­ter­i­cal. It was the worst mo­ment of my life,’ says Julie.

A painful re­al­i­sa­tion for the par­ents was that while they were in the air, me­dia out­lets had al­ready started cov­er­ing the news of Sara’s at­tack, mean­ing that the rest of the world knew about their daugh­ter’s death be­fore they did.

Sara’s best friend was in de­nial when she heard the news: ‘I just didn’t think that it was her, be­cause re­ports were com­ing through that she was wear­ing heels at the time of the at­tack and that slowed her down, but she could out­run me any day – even if I were in flats!

‘It still con­fuses me now how this hap­pened to her be­cause she was fast, she was street­smart and she al­ways had her wits about her. Even on nights out back home in Bris­bane, she was the one that would look af­ter all of us – like no mat­ter how drunk she got, the sec­ond one of us wasn’t OK, she was there and ready to look af­ter us. She was such a strong, pow­er­ful per­son. Clearly this was just an aw­ful case of be­ing in the wrong place at the wrong time’ says Sarah.

Ar­riv­ing in Lon­don, Mark and Julie had to wait four days un­til they could ‘see’ Sara and iden­tify her body. They both agreed that even though she had been con­firmed as a vic­tim of the at­tack, they still shared a glim­mer of hope that it wasn’t her ly­ing in the morgue and that this was all just a dread­ful mis­take.

How­ever, walk­ing into the room where Sara’s body was be­ing held was a mo­ment nei­ther Mark nor Julie would ever for­get. ‘I saw her stab wounds and that broke my heart. I know this sounds strange, but she looked like she had been cry­ing for hours. All I could do was just hold her hand and say, “Good­bye, my beau­ti­ful girl”,’ says Julie.

The lo­gis­tics of get­ting Sara back home to Bris­bane were hideous to man­age, and were tinged with a painful irony as Sara took her first ever Emi­rates flight – the air­line she’d dreamed of work­ing for – in a body bag.

In the months fol­low­ing the at­tack, ad­just­ing to life with­out Sara was han­dled dif­fer­ently by each of the fam­ily mem­bers. ‘All four of us [in­clud­ing Sara’s two broth­ers] have gone down dif­fer­ent paths with our mourn­ing,’ Mark ex­plains. Julie threw her­self back into work­ing, ad­mit­ting, ‘I couldn’t stand the fact that I was never go­ing to see Sara again for the rest of my life,’ while Mark fo­cussed on build­ing Sarz Sanc­tu­ary, a char­ity in mem­ory of their child, even­tu­ally quit­ting his job so he could work on the sanc­tu­ary full time.

The aim of Sarz Sanc­tu­ary is to pro­vide fam­i­lies with the same ser­vices and sup­port that Mark and Julie re­ceived in the UK when they were deal­ing with the dev­as­tat­ing loss of their daugh­ter. Pair­ing up with well­ness ex­perts, ther­a­pists and sup­port groups, Sarz Sanc­tu­ary will be­come a haven for those who are deal­ing with the dra­matic loss of a loved one, mean­ing par­ents, friends and fam­i­lies won’t be left alone dur­ing such a tough time.

Sara’s friends have strug­gled to come to terms with life af­ter Sarz, say­ing that while her death has brought to­gether old friends, it has also made them scared to travel.

‘Since Sarz’s at­tack, I haven’t had any de­sire to travel over­seas, and I think of Lon­don as a place of ter­ror now. It has made me more fear­ful,’ ex­plains her best friend Sarah. ‘I was scared of ter­ror­ists be­fore Sarz’s at­tack, but now it’s on a whole new level. I can’t be­lieve that peo­ple (if you can even call them that) could steal a young girl’s life.’

How­ever, when dis­cussing with her friends, Sarah knows that she can’t live this shel­tered life for­ever, be­cause, ‘Then that means they win’. Plus, she knows Sara would go bal­lis­tic at her if she let this loss stop her liv­ing her life. ‘I can al­ways hear Sarz in the back of my head telling me what to do. I can al­ways imag­ine ex­actly what she’d say, and she’d want me to be brave.’

Sarah is keep­ing her best friend alive in her thoughts, but she’s also deter­mined for the world to re­mem­ber Sara for the right rea­son – declar­ing that if there was one thing she’d want peo­ple to re­mem­ber Sara for, it’s her laugh.

‘I don’t want Sarz to be re­mem­bered as a vic­tim of ter­ror. She should be re­mem­bered for all the light she brought into the world be­fore that tragedy. Sarz wouldn’t want her name to be as­so­ci­ated with ter­ror­ism, she’d just want to be re­mem­bered as Sarz, the girl with the crazy laugh.’

This, com­bined with the work her de­voted par­ents are do­ing in her hon­our at Sarz Sanc­tu­ary, will help the scars left by Sara heal a lit­tle quicker.

‘So many peo­ple ask me, “Are you the friend of the girl who died in the ter­ror­ist at­tack?” Sarah says. ‘And I say, “No. I’m the friend of a girl who lost her life while she was away and do­ing what she loved. I’m a friend of Sara”.’

You can make a do­na­tion to Sarz Sanc­tu­ary to help those just like Mark, Julie and Sarah, by vis­it­ing their web­site, Sarz-sanc­tu­ary.org.

‘I couldn’t stand the fact that I was never go­ing to see her again’




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