Israeli court convicts five in Maccabiah bridge disaster

JERUSALEM — An Israeli court has convicted five people in the collapse of a rickety bridge at the Maccabiah Games in 1997 that left four Australian athletes dead and scores of others injured.

Following a trial that lasted more than two years, at which more than 80 witnesses testified about the disaster at the opening ceremonies of the "Jewish Olympics," a three-judge panel found the five guilty of negligence.

The offense can carry up to a four-year jail term, according to a prosecutor. Sentences will be handed out May 11.

The five who were convicted Monday were Baruch Karagula and Yehoshua Ben-Ezra, the contractors; Micha Bar-Ilan, the bridge's engineer; Adam Mishori, the head of Irgunit, the firm that subcontracted to Baruch and Karagula; and Yoram Eyal, the head of the organizing committee for the international games.

The tragedy occurred as the Australian delegation and some other athletes walked over a temporary bridge on their way toward the Ramat Gan Stadium to participate in the opening ceremony.

Two Australian athletes, Greg Small and Yetty Bennett, immediately drowned in the Yarkon River, and hundreds were injured.

Australians Elizabeth Sawicki and Warren Zines died weeks later as the result of complications linked to contaminants in the polluted water of the Yarkon. Dozens of athletes who were injured in the bridge collapse later suffered illnesses.

A week after the collapse, an Israeli commission found that the accident was caused by a chain of failures involving the bridge's planning and construction.

In October 1997, an Australian newspaper that had tests conducted on the river's water concluded that the athletes "fell into a deadly cocktail of chemicals and pollutants" resembling "diluted sewage."

Many of the Australian athletes have filed lawsuits against the Games' organizers, the Maccabi World Union and the builders of the bridge, demanding damages for injuries, mental anguish and loss of income.

Ehud Stein, a lawyer representing the athletes, said Monday's ruling could prove decisive in the civil lawsuits.

Several hours after the verdicts, Maccabi World Union chairman Uzi Netanel announced his resignation. Until now, Netanel and MWU president Ronald Bakalarz had resisted calls to step down.

Many in the Australian Jewish community were relieved by the verdict.

Colin Elterman, whose daughter Sasha was badly injured in the disaster, said, "We were not looking for vindication here. We don't want vengeance. We are looking for some good to come out of it — a strong message that there is a price to be paid for negligence."

The 257-page verdict blamed the defendants for using a traditional Israeli "trust me" method of bypassing procedures and regulations. Each level assured the one below that the bridge construction was being carried out properly, but no one checked.

Instead, the bridge was thrown up in less than a month with no blueprint, no foundation, and inadequate materials. It was designed by an engineer who had never crafted a similar bridge, constructed by a contractor who had no experience in building bridges, and supervised by no one, the court said.

The court noted that Eyal "tested the bridge by jumping on it to see if it swayed." According to regulations, the bridge should have been 10 times as strong as it was.

Eyal, the head of the organizing committee, sounded a repentant note after the verdict was read.

"The regret and pain of the incident will certainly accompany me and my colleagues in Maccabi until the end of our lives," he said. "We just hope the lessons will be learned and compensation arranged quickly because the suffering of the families is awful."

He also described the Games as a "great Zionist enterprise" that he hopes will "continue to exist in the future."

Nevertheless, last week, Maccabi Australia president Tom Danos announced that Australia will not send a team to the 16th Maccabiah Games in 2001 as a result of Israel's lack of progress in helping to compensate victims.