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Heroic tourist: Man who fought off Turku knife attacker may never walk again

In just a few moments of bloody violence on an August Friday afternoon in Turku, Hassan Zubier's life changed forever. The Swedish national has been hailed as a hero for helping one victim and protecting others from injury in a deadly knife attack that rocked the city -- and the country. Zubier did not escape the harrowing incident without injury - he may never walk on his own again.

Turun puukotusiskussa loukkaantunut Hassan Zubier vieraili tapahtumapaikalla Turun kauppatorilla sunnuntaina 20. elokuuta 2017.
Hassan Zubeir briefly left the hospital in Turku to attend a memorial service for victims of the deadly onslaught in August. Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

Hassan Zubier was on a camper van holiday in south-west Finland, and on Friday, August 18 he strolled along the picturesque Turku riverside with his partner, their infant child and his partner's mother. They went to a cafe and ate lunch at a little restaurant on a side street by the river.

As the group was trying to reach the older part of town they walked past the city's central market square, where Zubier saw a young woman collapse. She was bleeding profusely from a gaping knife wound in her neck.

Zubier told Yle's Swedish-language TV channel Yle Fem that he saw another person running away from the woman - and he was screaming.

Partner in attacker's line of sight

Zubier - a trained health care worker - rushed to the injured woman and tried to stop the bleeding. The attacker then stabbed Zubier in his neck, but his injury did not prevent him from seeing the attacker head toward his partner.

He says he yelled and screamed to distract the attacker from targeting his partner and was then stabbed again by the knife-weilding assailant.

"If I hadn't done anything, she would be dead today," he says. "I couldn't save the other woman, she died in my arms."

Just moments later police neutralised the attacker with a single non-fatal bullet to his leg. After arriving at the market square, first responders began attending to the wounded woman but quickly found that her injuries were too severe for them to save her. The ambulance workers then turned their attention to Zubier himself.

"I told them 'never mind about me. I'm living and breathing, go out to see if there are others who are hurt worse,'" he says. But actually, he knew that there was indeed something seriously wrong with him.

He couldn't feel anything on his left side and shooting pains -- like electric shocks -- tore through is body. He had lost so much blood by that time that he became exhausted and nearly drifted into sleep, he recalls.

Another ambulance arrived and Zubier was bundled in, strapped on a stretcher. Another stretcher was loaded into the ambulance next to his. The woman in it was in critical condition and rescue workers tried to revive her as the ambulance screamed towards the hospital. The woman's injuries were also fatal, and she became the second person to die in the vicious onslaught.

The aftermath: A severed spinal cord and severe nerve damage

While Zubier survived the attack, he may never be able to walk on his own again. The second stab wound to his neck went straight through his spinal cord, causing severe nerve damage. He is back home in Sweden now, and is still reeling physically and psychologically from the events of late August.

He says one of his legs feels cold but the other is warm. He stills suffers muscle spasms and deep nerve pain. He also has brain fatigue - a condition which often affects people who have experienced a traumatic incident.

"I went from 100 percent to zero," he says. "It's been hard."

During the month following the deadly attack, Zubier received countless messages from the media, and has been described as a hero at home and abroad. But not all of the communications he's read about that day are free of criticism for his actions.

Some physicians and health care workers around the world took issue with how Zubier reacted to the incident by criticising him. The general rule for first responders and doctors in dangerous conditions is that they should not endanger their own lives while trying to save someone else's.

"That's entirely true," Zubier says. "But I can get angry as hell when I read stuff like this. These are people who are sitting at home on their sofas, writing what they think. They weren't at Turku Market Square. They weren't stabbed four times by a terrorist."

He also had some thoughts about how others at the scene did not try to help anyone, but instead took photos and video of the bloodbath.

Promise of money makes onlookers passive

Zubier says he partly blames the media for that behaviour. He claims media houses pay out big sums of money for the "picture of the day," which encourages people to become passive viewers rather than helpers.

"There were many people filming me while I was trying to save that woman, but no one tried to offer help. If someone had helped to stop the bleeding, I could have started with heart and lung resuscitation," he says.

Now, more than a month since the day of the attack, Zubier attends physical rehab five days a week, seven hours a day. He's regained some movement in his left arm but still cannot feel it. He has learned to stand up again and spends his time in rehab practicing putting one foot in front of the other, but his doctors doubt that he will be able to move around without the help of his wheelchair.

During the past month he's also had some time to think about it all.

"If people could just care for one another - and to approach them if they don't feel well. You don't need to have health care training in order to help. It is quite enough to put a blanket on someone who's injured or in a state of shock and simply talk to them."

First aid courses a must for adults

He also thinks that everyone over the age of 15 should take a first aid course, saying that if people did that more they might be more likely to dare to step forward to help.

Both Zubier and the man who admitted to carrying out the violent attack have been described as "people with a foreign appearance," in the media, which surprises Zubier.

"If I cut the palm of my hand and you did the same to yours, we would have the same colour of blood," Zubier says. "We are the same, you and I and those who died at the market square in Turku."

This article was based on text related to a report from the Efter Nio TV programme, broadcast on September 18 on Yle Fem and Yle Areena.

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