Maccabiah tragedy: We lost the biggest moment of our lives

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That was how Israel's leading newspapers described the scene at the Jewish Olympics, which got under way Wednesday after a bridge leading to the opening ceremonies collapsed Monday, killing at least two and injuring dozens — seven critically.

Though the Maccabiah was postponed 24 hours after the bridge tragedy, the games were marked by a national debate over whether opening ceremonies should have continued amid the disaster, and even if the gathering should go on.

Compounding the controversy, the government appointed an investigative panel to learn why a pedestrian bridge snapped as the Australian and Austrian delegations crossed it, sending dozens of people into the muddy Yarkon River below.

Karl Gustavo Edinger, the Austrian tennis coach who escaped with only bruises when the bridge fell, spoke haltingly about the accident a day later.

After silently crying, he said the bridge broke just as "our hearts were pumping, because in one more minute we were going into the [Ramat Gan National] Stadium," where the opening ceremony was held.

"We lost the biggest moment of our lives," he said.

For many, that moment — the opening of the games — showed insensitivity and bad judgment. Israel's two main newspapers, Yediot Achronot and Ma'ariv, described the strangeness of holding the opening ceremonies soon after the bridge fell.

Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar justified the decision by Maccabiah officials and Israeli President Ezer Weizman, saying officials did not want the crowd — which was still unaware of the tragedy — to panic.

However, Bar said a parade of national teams that kicked off the events and a fireworks show were canceled.

The media labeled the ceremonies Zionist kitsch, with folk dancers hora-ing in blue-and-white costumes, patriotic songs playing and giant photos of Theodor Herzl sparkling.

The stadium screened pictures of the 12 Israeli sportsmen killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the announcer said, "We must never forget." The show, which included hip-hop-dancing children, included a video clip of Yitzhak Rabin's White House speech. "Enough bloodshed, enough tears," Rabin said.

A stadium announcer exhorted, "Come on, everybody clap your hands!"

Israeli TV covered the kitsch, then cut back and forth to the accident scene — divers combing the Yarkon for bodies, helicopters beaming down searchlights and rescue workers tending to the wounded.

It was a tragic and strange beginning to the games, which drew 5,500 athletes from 50 countries and 50,000 people to opening events.

Competition was delayed for a day of mourning for the two Australians killed — Gregory Small, 37, and Yetty Bennett, 50.

The accident occurred just after the Austrian team had crossed the bridge six abreast and about 100 of the 373-member Australian team were on the bridge, witnesses said.

"We were walking across," said Harry Procel, the Australia team manager. "All of a sudden we heard a bang. It was like a loud noise. And then all of a sudden, in slow motion, it just collapsed in the middle and we started to slide."

One Australian athlete returned to the river and retrieved the soaked flag of Australia, Army Radio said. Others huddled on shore in their muddied sports uniforms.

"I fell in the water and suddenly I felt air, thank God, but I don't know what happened to the other people," Australian delegation member Ari Kochmalik told Israeli TV's Channel 1.

An air of mourning was palpable at Kfar Maccabiah, the games' official headquarters, where many of the athletes — some of them weeping — tried to come to terms with the tragedy that occurred as the opening ceremonies got under way.

During the day of mourning, the Australian team — some bandaged or wearing braces — gathered to decide what to do. Weizman, who had visited many of them in hospitals the previous night, personally urged the team to compete.

"This is one of the most difficult days of my adult life — as I am sure it is for you," Weizman said. "I have come here to be with you and listen to you.

"Nothing can be the same after what happened. I can only suggest that you carry on, with all the difficulties."

A teenage boy, his eyes red and puffy, let tears stream down his cheeks. Some members of the Australian bowling team, which lost two of its teammates in the tragedy, echoed Weizman's pleas.

"We aren't a team sport, and if anyone feels they can't compete, put up your hand," an Australian tennis coach told his group, which was seated in a circle on the grass.

No one raised a hand.

"It would be easy for us to just go through the motions, but that's not enough," tennis player Joshua Frydenberg told his teammates.

"We have to focus harder and support each other. We're not doing this for ourselves anymore, but for our team. We're doing it for Sasha."

He was referring to 15-year-old Sasha Elterman, a member of the junior tennis team, who was in critical condition at a Tel Aviv hospital.

Procel welcomed the decision to compete.

"I think it was a very brave decision."

Procel said that since the accident, the Australian delegation had received hundreds of phone calls and dozens of faxes of support from concerned Israelis and from the other delegations.

Procel said he was touched by the fact that all 50 delegations to the games attended a memorial service Tuesday evening.

Although a few of the athletes privately expressed anger over the decision to continue the glitzy opening-night ceremonies after the accident, the brunt of their anger was directed at the people who built and approved the temporary ramp that collapsed as the first delegations were about to enter the stadium.

"I'm sad and I'm angry," said Randall Braunfeld, a 21-year-old wrestler from Philadelphia. "It's a tragedy that shouldn't have happened."

"Just look at how the bridge was built," said Braunfeld's teammate Jeff Liberman, of Boston. "Seeing it after the fact, I can't see how people were allowed to walk on it, it was so flimsy."

Liberman said that although he and most of his fellow athletes want to compete, "it's tough. Everyone will be competing in the names of the victims and their families. All the fun has gone out of the games."

In Australia, those in the 105,000-member Jewish community were devastated by the tragedy.

Jewish welfare organizations organized counseling sessions for those who were close to the victims and for students at Jewish day schools.

Peter Wertheim, president of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization for 40,000 Jews, said, "It is extremely difficult and painful to come to terms with the fact that such a joyous international sporting event should have been marred by a devastating tragedy of this magnitude."

Charges and countercharges flying out of the bridge probe also clouded the games' usual festive atmosphere.

Attention focused on the officials involved in the construction of the temporary wood and aluminum bridge.

A lawyer for the two private contractors who built the bridge said his clients were only following the directions given by the engineer who approved the project.

The engineer, Micha Bar-Ilan, in turn told police that when he inspected the bridge and gave the go-ahead, he made it clear that no more than 100 people should be on the bridge at a time and that someone should stand at the end of the bridge to control the flow of athletes.

The police and organizers of the Maccabiah Games said they never received any such directive.

A video shot just before the bridge collapsed showed the first teams — Austria and Australia — crossing from a parking lot over the Yarkon River, heading toward the opening-night parade in the stadium.

It showed that there was no one on hand to count the number of people crossing the bridge.

Separate investigations — one by the police and the other, a public inquiry initiated by the Education Ministry — are under way to probe the reasons for the tragedy.

It was also discovered that pesticides had been sprayed into the Yarkon to kill mosquitoes before the games. Some of those who fell into the stream and swallowed some water suffered from heart and lung complications.

The Ramat Gan municipality denied it had authorized any pesticide spraying in the last few days and said in an official statement that "if someone had dispersed pesticides, and this is in doubt, it would have been the Yarkon River Authority."

Even as the finger pointing continued, the games began. Echoing the 1972 Olympics, when Israelis wore black armbands to remember their fallen comrades, all Maccabiah participants wore black ribbons in memory of the dead.