Tags: Banquet | Hall | Collapse | 'Worst | Disaster | Israel's | History'

Banquet Hall Collapse 'Worst Disaster In Israel's History'

Friday, 25 May 2001 12:00 AM

Hundreds of soldiers, police and other workers were searching through the rubble of the five-story building for survivors and bodies of the some 655 guests that had come to celebrate the wedding of Assaf Dror and Karen Yosef.

The rescuers' only clue as to who might still be missing was the invited guest list and reports from relatives who could not find their loved ones among the injured.

Major-General Gabi Ofir, head of the Home Front Command overseeing the operation, said survivors could be found even up to a week. He called the disaster "the greatest tragedy of its kind in Israel's history."

The Israeli army's crack search and rescue team was leading the operation, using specially trained dogs to seek for signs of life but hopes of finding any survivors seemed slim.

"This is exactly like an earthquake only the surrounding buildings are standing," said Shlomi, one of the specially-trained army rescue workers, who was part of a team that searched for survivors after recent earthquakes in Greece and Turkey.

The same unit was also one of the first on the scene of the twin bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

"There is not a big chance that we'll find survivors," Shlomi said. "There are not a lot of air pockets." A short time later, two more bodies were pulled from the wreckage.

Nevertheless, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz said the search would continue for up to a week. It was the first time that so many rescuers were mobilized for a tragedy within Israel, he added.

Fears that the remainder of the structure could collapse were hampering the efforts, preventing for the most part the use machinery to dig through the debris. Large chunks of concrete dangled above from metal rods. Rescuers were working carefully to remove buckets of dirt and concrete by hand, with occasional help from a crane.

The groom, Assaf was lightly injured and his new wife, Keren broke her hip. They spent their wedding night in the hospital.

Francis, the mother of one of those wounded, explained that as she understood it, there was dancing in one area of the floor.

"All of a sudden, within 30 seconds the entire floor [collapsed]," she said. Her son Oren, had just left the dance floor. He plummeted one story down and sustained moderate head wounds.

"It's a catastrophe," said one guest, who left the party before the floor collapsed and was back at the scene on Friday. A passerby described it as Gehenom (hell).

From the front of the Versailles Hall it is hard to tell that a major tragedy has occurred. The top floor, complete with plants in the windows, and the roof remain intact.

Parked out front on Friday was the silver Audi in which the wedding couple had planned to depart from the occasion, roses and ribbons decorating the car were baking in the morning sun.

The tragedy occurred at about 10:45 p.m. Israel time Thursday, when the fourth floor of the hall caved in, sending most of the guests plunging some 60 feet, crashing through two lower floors.

Sirens screamed throughout the night as some one hundred ambulances from Jerusalem and elsewhere in the country rushed to the scene, transporting scores of wounded to local hospitals.

Greg Lewis, an American who has been living in Israel for two years, was one of the first at the scene of the tragedy.

"I live about 100 meters [yards] away," Lewis said. "I heard a sound like a dump truck emptying out - a kind of rushing sound. It sounded like a wall or building collapsed. I looked up and even in the dark I could see a cloud of dust."

When he arrived he saw people who had been near columns and by the walls, standing on concrete ledges that remained from the floor, clinging to the pillars and letting themselves down on tablecloths.

Despite the heightened security situation in the country, Lewis said, he knew immediately that there had been no terrorist attack because there was no explosion.

The Palestinian Authority issued a statement expressing its condolences to the bereaved and wounded and offered its help in the disaster.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said that he suspected criminal negligence was responsible for the tragedy and pledged a thorough investigation.

First reports indicated that the owner of the hall had instructed a building contractor who was doing renovations to remove four supporting pillars. But there were apparently problems with the hall itself, too.

(C)

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Hundreds of soldiers, police and other workers were searching through the rubble of the five-story building for survivors and bodies of the some 655 guests that had come to celebrate the wedding of Assaf Dror and Karen Yosef. The rescuers' only clue as to who might still...
Banquet,Hall,Collapse,'Worst,Disaster,Israel's,History'
756
2001-00-25
Friday, 25 May 2001 12:00 AM
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