Israel still fast and loose on safety a year after Maccabiah tragedy

JERUSALEM — A year ago this week, amid much pomp and circumstance, 100 members of the 370-strong Australian delegation to the Maccabiah Games began crossing a newly constructed, 50-foot-long bridge over the Yarkon River that led into Ramat Gan's National Stadium for the games' opening ceremony.

Soon after they set foot on the flimsy bridge, it buckled and caved in, funneling the competitors into the contaminated Yarkon River. Some were forced underwater by people falling on top of them, while others were entangled in the bridge's planks and beams.

One man, Greg Small, 37, died instantly. Another woman, Yetty Bennett, 50, died four hours later. Within another month, two more people — Elizabeth Sawicki, 47, and Warren Zines, 56 — died as a result of the collapse.

The Health Ministry ruled that two of the four died because of exposure to pollutants in the river.

Nearly 70 others were injured. Soon after the accident, the first calls were heard that something needs to be done to raise the level of public safety in the country.

There was also much talk of an imperative to clean up the land's violated rivers.

But 12 months later, precious little has changed.

"It has been a year since the disaster, and the Australian community is angry that nothing has been done," said Colin Elterman, the father of 15-year-old Sacha Elterman, who was hospitalized for eight months and has undergone more than 20 operations as a result of the Maccabiah bridge collapse.

"Steps that should have been taken in the normal course of `doing the right thing' have been neglected and avoided primarily because of the economic and political connections of the Maccabi World Union," Elterman said. "There have been no resignations of senior MWU executives, we have had to fight — and are still fighting — to try and get an independent Knesset inquiry and the issue of compensation has not even been raised."

Elterman added that "after a year of asking nicely, our patience is running out."

The Dotan Committee, which investigated the tragedy, released damning findings but did not find anyone culpable, leaving the organized Australian Jewish community feeling empty, especially since a television program aired in Australia argued that the committee was far from independent.

"Only an inquiry that has teeth will expose the irresponsible planning, negligent construction and clear attempts at cover-up that followed the tragedy," the Australian Jewish News wrote in an editorial last week.

Five of those held responsible for planning and building the bridge have since gone to criminal trial, including Yoram Eyal, the chairman of the Maccabiah games organizing committee, who has since resigned.

All five were charged with negligent manslaughter.

The trial is being held in the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, in front of a three-judge panel.

Elterman, in an open letter printed in the Australian Jewish News, said that through the campaign for an independent inquiry and for just compensation "we hope to send a message to people who sit on boards and committees in Israel that they cannot play fast and loose with public safety."

If the intent is to upgrade safety standards, there is plenty of work to be done around the Yarkon River. A Health Ministry study found that in certain respects the river is more contaminated now then it was at the time of the bridge collapse.

"A year after the tragedy in the Yarkon, the river should be in the midst of a purification process," said Danny Fisch, director of the Israel Union of Environment Defense, one of the environmental groups sponsoring the protest.

"Almost nothing was done by those responsible for polluting the Yarkon, by the local and regional councils that dump sewage, and by government agencies responsible for enforcing the law."