Israelis continue search for collapse survivors

At least 26 are dead, 12 missing after disaster at wedding reception

May 26, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Already worn down by an eight-month guerrilla war and hit by two new suicide bombings, Israel reeled yesterday from a purely civilian, apparently preventable tragedy after a floor collapsed beneath a crowded wedding reception, plunging hundreds of guests several stories and trapping and crushing 26 people to death amid heaps of rubble and twisted metal.

Some 370 people were injured, including a 3-month-old baby, and 16 were seriously hurt. The bride, Keren Sror, still in her white wedding dress, was carried out on a stretcher with hip and chest injuries. The groom, Assi, was treated for minor injuries.

His mother, Alisa Sror, said from her hospital bed that she had just congratulated her son when the dance floor gave way: "The wall collapsed on them, the floor, the tables."

The casualty toll from the worst civilian disaster in Israeli history surpassed that of any single day of the intifada and eclipsed two bloody reminders yesterday of the continuing conflict with the Palestinians: a car bomb in the Israeli coastal town of Hedera that killed two suspected terrorists and wounded more than 50 Israelis, and a powerful truck bomb near a military outpost in the occupied Gaza Strip that killed the driver.

But in a small country where calamities seem to engulf the entire population, average Israelis showed the cumulative effects of months of shocks.

"Why, why, why?" shouted a shopkeeper near the scene in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood as he watched the accident take place on a wedding video on the television news.

"It's from God," said a bank teller in Herzliya Pituach, raising her hands skyward and asking whether this was punishment.

"We have so many disasters ... so many problems, and suddenly to have this disaster," remarked Eitan Chaikov, spokesman for the Jerusalem Border Police protecting rescuers and bystanders at the scene.

"It's unnecessary," he said, and initial reports on the cause seemed to bear him out.

According to officials and the head of the Israel Building Center, Eran Rolls, the floor of the fourth-story ballroom in the 15-year-old building was made of materials that Israel banned as unsafe four years ago .

And the Israeli press quoted investigators as saying that support pillars had been removed during a recent renovation to create more space.

Mayor Ehud Olmert said there were suspected violations of building regulations.

Police opened a criminal investigation and detained the four partners in the business, called the Versailles Hall, as well as two contractors, an engineer and the inventor of the now-banned floor material.

According to a Jerusalem newspaper, Kol Ha'ir, the owner of a ballroom one floor below had sued Versailles' owner over leaks in drainage systems and sealing beneath the top-floor ballroom.

The collapse occurred at 10:43 Thursday (3:43 p.m. EDT). The bride's father had just been hoisted on a chair in the tradition of Jewish weddings, and revellers were dancing to the thumping beat of the Mizrahi hit song, "Heart of Gold," when the tile floor opened and swallowed them in a fog of dust and sparks.

In a moment captured by a guest's video camera, stunned bystanders peered into the gaping hole and recoiled in horror.

"I felt everything was shaking and we suddenly found ourselves falling and falling. We all fell, hugging one another," a woman survivor told Israel Radio.

Skilled in responding to crises, police and ambulances were on the scene within minutes of the floor collapse. But the number of injured quickly overwhelmed the capacity of local hospitals to absorb them, and medics treated the more lightly injured on the pavement near the gaping, crumbling Versailles Hall, the ballroom's ceiling and windowsills looming intact over them.

In the early hours of yesterday morning, 300 rescue workers from the Army's Home Command - many of them reservists and veterans of searches for survivors of explosions at home and earthquakes overseas - took charge of the area.

Slowly and carefully, using their hands and shovels, they poked through chunks of concrete, plaster and mangled metal, heaping debris into square yellow buckets to be hoisted by cranes. Occasionally they paused to listen for the moans and cries of survivors. Mostly they found only the dead.

Although the last living victims had been pulled out early yesterday morning, workers continued searching into the Sabbath for the dozen people still missing. Officials said it was possible for someone to survive in the rubble for several days.

But members of ZKA, the Orthodox organization of rescue teams that identifies bodies and collects remains, stood by on grim alert. One of the group, Jacob Eichler, shook his head in sadness. "All these people were one big family or best friends," he said.

Arriving in late afternoon, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested that he might appoint a national commission to help prevent similar disasters.

"This event is horrifying, among the hardest that ever happened in Israel," he said. "I would define it as a national tragedy."

The Palestinian National Authority issued a statement of condolences and offered the help of its own rescue workers, if needed.

But suicide warriors kept up their fight. The terrorist arm of Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the Hedera car bomb, and the Islamic resistance movement Hamas said it was behind the truck bomb in Gaza.

Both said the attacks marked the first anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.

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