Astronauts death shakes his best man in Los Altos

When the phone jarred Nimrod Goor awake early Saturday, the Los Altos resident immediately knew something was amiss.

It was a friend from Israel, urging the 45-year-old Goor to "turn on the TV, something's gone wrong with the shuttle."

That's when the Israeli-born software executive learned of the unfolding disaster 38 miles up in space that claimed the life of his close friend, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.

"I never thought anything would happen to him," said Goor, who flew with Ramon in the Israeli air force more than 20 years ago, served as best man at his wedding and watched him triumphantly rocket into the sky aboard the Columbia on Jan. 16.

Until Saturday's disastrous explosion, Goor said, "In a way, he had a guardian angel looking over him. He had a few close calls."

In a phone interview, Goor said he believed that Ramon, a distinguished fighter pilot and air force colonel, "thought the space flight was safer than many other flights he took in his life."

Goor said he personally witnessed his commanding officer survive a fiery midair collision of his F-16 plane during a training mission over the Negev desert in 1982. Ramon parachuted to safety in that mishap.

The astronaut also had survived the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and the 1982 war in Lebanon.

The son of an Auschwitz survivor, Ramon perished along with six American crew members when the shuttle disintegrated as it streaked over Texas.

Among the symbolic objects the 48-year-old Israeli astronaut carried on the journey were a tiny Torah scroll, a drawing sketched by a teenager who died in the Holocaust and a mezuzah crafted with barbed wire by a young San Francisco artist.

"I actually spoke with him a week before the launch," said Goor, who attended a special reception with other Israelis before watching the lift-off from observation decks at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

"He was very excited. He felt completely ready and prepared for it."

Goor recalled how the astronaut enthusiastically described the elaborate flight preparations while spending the night at his Silicon Valley home last spring. Ramon was in the Bay Area for shuttle-landing training at the nearby NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

"He was very impressed at the level of preparations," recalled Goor. "Everything is simulated and trained on. He was definitely fully ready for this to take place."

This week, Jews throughout the Bay Area joined mourners worldwide in expressing their grief over the catastrophe. They scheduled special observances at synagogues and placed condolence calls to the San Francisco offices of the Consulate General of Israel.

"It's just a tragic day," said Amy Friedkin, the San Franciscan who serves as president of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Just 16 days earlier, Friedkin was at an annual meeting in Tel Aviv of the pro-Israel lobby. She got caught up in the elation over the shuttle mission when she watched the lift-off with Israeli dignitaries in a Ministry of Defense conference room.

"Israelis are taking this loss especially hard," Friedkin observed.

For Goor, the loss has taken a personal tone.

He recounted how he was a young pilot stationed in the same squadron when Ramon flew the perilous 1981 bombing mission of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.

"The odds were more than 50 percent that he would get hit," said Goor, who described himself as a bystander of that bombing run.

"When he came out of his bombing run, they lost radio contact with him for a short while," Goor said. People feared Ramon had been shot down until a few seconds later. "His voice came back on the radio and he'd accomplished the mission and was coming back."

Not long after that, his friend had another brush with death on a training flight over the southern desert.

Goor said he was flying in formation with Ramon and another pilot when "in front of my own eyes, I saw him colliding with another F-16. All I saw were two balls of fire coming down."

Fearing the worst, Goor said moments later, "I heard his voice saying he managed to eject out of that fire. He came out of that." The other pilot parachuted to safety as well.

At the end of 1982, Ramon and Goor were promoted in a joint ceremony at their base that began with the blaring of emergency sirens.

The two pilots rushed to their planes just as the alarm was canceled, Goor said. Their commanders then surprised them with a ceremony in which Goor was elevated to the rank of captain while his friend was promoted to major. Ramon eventually became a colonel in 1994.

Goor said he spent seven years in the air force before going on to study electrical engineering with Ramon at Tel Aviv University.

"He was a very unassuming, humble person," said Goor. "He did everything on a very personal basis. He befriended me when I was sort of his underling."

The two became so close, in fact, that they took a trek in the Himalayas during one summer break. They had scheduled a follow-up trip to Japan. But instead of taking that vacation, "I became the best man at his wedding," said Goor.

Held on a horse ranch outside Tel Aviv, the wedding was small and "very informal," Goor said. "I drove him in my dinky old Subaru car. I remember my sister and I decorating the car."

The two remained friends, even after Goor moved to the United States a decade ago, and Ramon increasingly gained hero status in his homeland.

"I knew him throughout the years as just a terrific friend," said Goor. "Someone who would be there for you, stay in touch with you."

While Ramon was living and training in Houston for the mission, the two spoke on the phone every couple of months, according to Goor.

After the high-tech industry took a financial dive, Ramon "was so compassionate about what he thought friends were going through," Goor said. The astronaut voiced encouragement that "everything will turn out great."

Ramon, he said, "had a way to step into your shoes and make you feel good and give you motivation."

For Goor, the shuttle disaster is "so painful."

Besides losing a close friend, Goor said Ramon "was representing Israel during a very, very, very difficult time. When the country wanted something so badly that you could identify with, something outside the scope of the conflict in the Middle East."

The enormity of the loss was keenly felt at the consulate's Montgomery Street offices, where staffers fielded dozens of calls this week.

"People are calling to express their condolences," said spokesman Amir Segev. "To say they're with us, the family."

A condolence book was set out for well-wishers to sign.

For San Francisco artist Aimee Golant, the disaster took on a personal meaning. Ramon was carrying a mezuzah created by the 29-year-old artist.

The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Golant said the mezuzah was made from sterling silver with a copper Jewish star ringed in barbed wire.

It was presented to the astronaut by the 1939 Club of Los Angeles, a Holocaust survivors' organization in which Golant's grandparents and mother are members.

"The idea behind the mezuzah is to me creating sacred space," said Golant.

With the disaster, "my heart goes out to his family, more than anything," she said.

Golant said she had e-mailed the astronaut before the launch, seeking his permission to publicize the fact that her mezuzah was going into space.

"He asked that I not do it," Golant said. "He felt that the people who were meant to know, would know."