An Israeli-American teenager survived a siege on his home by Hamas attackers over the weekend after his parents shielded him from the gunfire but were killed themselves.
The family lived on a kibbutz in southern Israel near the border with Gaza. They had less than a minute to seek safety after being alerted to the attack.
As the fighters invaded their home, they scrambled into a tiny room meant to protect them from rocket attacks. Shlomi Mathias had his arm blown off trying to keep the fighters out of the room, relatives said. As fighters peppered the room with gunfire, Debbie Mathias yelled at her son, Rotem, to get down. Then she was shot dead; the bullet traveled through her and hit him in the stomach.
Rotem Mathias, 16, stayed underneath his mother and played dead for about 30 minutes before running for shelter under a bed and eventually hiding under a blanket in adjacent laundry room, relatives told The Associated Press. Twice, Rotem Mathias managed to elude the fighters — some of them laughing — before he was rescued by Israeli soldiers.
“The last thing my dad said is he lost his arm. Then my mom died on top of me,” Rotem Mathias told ABC News in an interview from the hospital where he was being treated for gunshot and shrapnel wounds. He was released Tuesday.
“I just stopped my breathing. I lowered it down as much as I possibly could. I didn’t move and was terrified,” he said. “I didn’t make any noise. I prayed for any god. I didn’t really care which god. I just prayed for a god that they won’t find me.”
The family’s ordeal unfolded on group chat early Saturday morning, starting with the couple messaging that they had heard voices in Arabic, breaking of glass and gunfire. Then they went silent for 20 minutes before Rotem Mathias responded: “Mom and dad r dead sorry. Call help.”
For the next 10 hours, relatives including Deborah Mathias’ brother-in-law Eran Shani, his wife and daughters supported Rotem. At one point, they managed to get a doctor to join the call to ask Rotem Mathias about his level of bleeding and to assess the situation.
Shani told AP that his wife, a psychotherapist, tried to calm Rotem for “many hours before the soldiers came. He was bleeding. He gave up a few times. He did not know whether he was going to survive or not.”
Meanwhile, the Mathias’ other two daughters, 21-year-old Shir and 19-year-old Shakked, were hiding separately in their own safe rooms in the kibbutz just minutes from their parents. They got a message from their mom that fighters were in the kibbutz and that they shouldn’t “open the door.”
“All we could hear were gunshots and people screaming and bombs going off, cars exploding,” Shir Mathias said, recalling how she hid for more than 12 hours before both sisters were rescued by soldiers.
“It’s like if you close your eyes, you might think you’re in a movie theater. Then you open your eyes and you realize: I’m in my room. I’m in my house. This is real,” she told AP. “We could hear missiles flying down. We could hear them whistle and explode. It was insane. I’ve never heard anything like this. It was terrifying.”
As it grew dark, Shakked Mathias went in search of her sister.
“I packed up a bag as quietly as I could, and I ran to my sister’s apartment and I knocked at her door. She thought I was a terrorist. I called out her name and she opened up,” Shakked Mathias said. “From that point on, we were together. And the first thing I asked her, ‘Do you think … Mom and Dad are dead? Do you think our brother is OK?'”
They were nearly caught by Hamas fighters who knocked on their door and shined a flashlight inside. After the fighters left, Shir Mathias began frantically calling anyone she could reach before connecting with a soldier who came to their house.
The attack came hours after the family had gathered for a festive evening that included music, since both their parents were musicians. Shlomi Mathias was a music teacher; Debbie Mathias was a singer and songwriter. Their parents were in a nostalgic mood, talking about how they met.
The family returned to the kibbutz, and Shir Mathias remembers her mom telling her to have a good time Saturday, since they were planning to attend a Bruno Mars concert in Tel Aviv. Their dad helped check the oil in the car.
“Before I went to my house, Mom said, ’Bye. Have fun tomorrow,’” Shir Mathias said. “I was like, ‘Thank you, I love you.’ I gave her a hug and gave my dad a hug.” Hours later, they were gone.