Maccabiah bridge collapse
|Maccabiah bridge collapse|
Rescuers search for victims from Australia's athletic delegation shortly after the collapse of the pedestrian bridge into the Yarkon River.
|Date:||July 14, 1997|
|Place:||Yarkon River, Tel Aviv, Israel|
|Result:||4 Australian athletes killed,
The Maccabiah bridge collapse was the catastrophic failure of a pedestrian bridge over the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv, Israel on July 14, 1997. The collapse of the temporary wooden structure killed four and injured 60 Australian athletes who were visiting Israel to participate in the Maccabiah Games. One athlete died in the collapse, three died afterwards due to infections caused by exposure to the polluted river water.
Five people, including the engineer who designed the bridge and the chair of the Tel Aviv Games Organising Committee, were later convicted of recklessly causing death and injury. The incident and subsequent inquiries were extensively reported on by the Australian media.
The Maccabiah Games, first staged in 1932, is an athletic event held every four years in Tel Aviv, Israel, to celebrate the Zionist Revolution, and to demonstrate the unity and athleticism of the Jewish people. The games include competitions for adults and for junior athletes aged 15 to 18, and are open to all Israelis and Jews from around the world.
The 15th Maccabiah Games, held in 1997 and billed as the third largest sporting event in the world, included 5,300 participants from 56 nations competing in 38 athletic events. The opening ceremony on July 14 at 8 p.m. (local time), held at Ramat Gan Stadium and designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, was attended by 50,000 people and featured hundreds of dancers, dazzling sound and light displays, and was broadcast on Israeli television. As at past games, a temporary footbridge, 60 feet long and 18 feet wide, was constructed across the nearby Yarkon River to allow competitors to march into the stadium during the ceremony from an assembly area on the other side of the river.
As scheduled during the opening ceremony, the participating athletes, teamed with their respective national delegations, began to cross the bridge and enter the stadium in alphabetical order. The second nation to cross the bridge, following the Austrian team, consisted of the 373 members of the Australian delegation. As the Australian athletes, in parallel rows of six, crossed the river, the bridge's support beams at roughly mid-span snapped, plunging around 100 of the Australians eight metres into the river below. Several of the fallen were forcibly submerged in the 1.6-metre deep river by the weight of falling athletes above them.
Other athletes, bystanders, event staff, and police leapt into the river to rescue the fallen. Inside the stadium, Israeli government officials, including President Ezer Weizman, chose to continue with the opening ceremony, but canceled the remainder of the march of the national teams into the stadium. Israeli television maintained live coverage, switching back and forth between the frantic rescue efforts outside the stadium and the festive dancing and light shows inside.
The 67 injured were taken to nearby Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva and Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. One, Gregory Small, 37, a bowler from Sydney, was dead on arrival, apparently as a result of injuries suffered during the fall. The remaining 66 victims did not appear to have suffered life-threatening injuries. Their injuries included broken bones and water inhalation.
Within an hour or two of admission to the hospital, a number of victims began to show signs of asphyxia. Doctors discovered that an unidentified organism was attacking their respiratory systems and pulmonary blood vessels. By the next morning, seven athletes were in critical condition.
Patrick Surkin, who ran the intensive care unit at Tel Aviv Medical Centre, wondered whether a toxin might be the culprit behind the infections. He contacted David Pargament, chief of the Yarkon River Authority, who explained that 36 hours before the collapse, mosquito larvicide oil, a mixture of jet fuel and oil, had been sprayed on the surface of the Yarkon to suppress mosquitoes. Subsequent lab tests, however, found no traces of the substance in the sick athletes.
Bowler Yetty Bennett, 50, died later that day from asphyxia. Elizabeth Sawicki, 47, a member of the delegation's bridge team, died July 26 from complications from infection. Bowler Warren Zines, 54, died on August 10, 1997 of severe respiratory-tract infection at Sheba Medical Center. Zines was the fourth and final fatality from the accident.
An autopsy of Zines finally identified the source of the infections as the fungus Pseudallescheria boydii, a rare but serious cause of pneumonia and disseminated infection subsequent to near-drowning. This species is resistant to nearly all available drug therapies. Disseminated infection can spread to the brain, kidneys, heart, and thyroid.
After Zines' death, one athlete, tennis player Sasha Elterman, 15, remained in critical condition at Schneider Children's Medical Centre in Petah Tikva. Elterman underwent 18 surgeries in the six months after the collapse, 13 of them brain surgeries. Elterman ultimately survived her ordeal, but her lungs permanently lost 40% of their capacity and she suffered from periodic convulsions.
Israel's deputy minister of education, Moshe Peled, immediately convened a public commission, chaired by Yishai Dotan, to investigate the collapse. Israel Police also conducted its own investigation. The Dotan Commission released its findings on the 23rd of July, 1997. The commission found that the Maccabiah Games' organising committee, led by Yoram Eyal, had departed from the usual practice of paying the IDF to construct the bridge. Instead, in an apparent effort to reduce costs, Eyal contracted with a company called Irgunit, headed by Adam Mishori, to construct the bridge. Irgunit's traditional business was the construction of props and stage sets for theatre productions. The company had never designed nor built a bridge.
Irgunit sub-contracted the bridge's construction to Baruch Karagula and Yehoshua Ben-Ezra (also known as "Ben-Ezra Construction"). The commission found that Karagula and Ezra were not licensed to build bridges, had never attempted to build a bridge, and used substandard materials in the bridge's construction. Photographs taken after the collapse showed that the bridge was constructed of rusty metal pipes bound together with wire.
The commission concluded that the bridge's engineer, Micha Bar-Ilan, did not submit a blueprint for the bridge, designed a bridge that was inadequate for its intended use, and did not properly supervise or coordinate the bridge's construction. The commission faulted the Maccabiah Games' organizers for poor coordination and oversight over the bridge's assembly.
An investigation by Augustine Zycher for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council reported that the IDF had employed Tamir Rowner, an experienced bridge construction engineer, to build previous bridges for the games. For the 1997 games, Maccabiah officials, apparently unwilling to pay the IDF's price of $111,000, accepted a bid from Irgunit to build the bridge for $34,750.
According to Zycher, Mishori kept $7,700 of the payment and gave the rest to Karagula and Ben-Ezra to erect the bridge. Karagula and Ben-Ezra hired Bar-Ilan to design and oversee the bridge's construction. Bar-Ilan claimed that his bridge as designed would support 250 kg per square metre, which did not meet Israeli government standards, which required a pedestrian bridge to support 500 kg per square metre. In any event, the Dotan investigation found that the bridge was far weaker than what Bar-Ilan claimed. Furthermore, a municipal permit was required to construct the bridge, which Karagula and Ben-Ezra did not obtain. The municipality in which the bridge was constructed was Ramat Gan. Zvi Bar, Ramat Gan's mayor and head of the city planning division which issued construction permits, was a member of the Maccabiah committee that helped select Irgunit. Bar apparently did not ensure that Irgunit, Karagula, or Ben-Ezra obtained the necessary permit and made no effort to ensure that the bridge as constructed was safe.
Based on the findings of the Dotan and police investigations, Israel's attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein brought criminal charges against Eyal, Mishori, Karagula, Ben-Ezra, and Bar-Ilan for causing death by negligence and for building without proper permits. On March 15, 1998 in Tel Aviv Magistrate Court all five pleaded not guilty. Final arguments in the trial were presented in October 1999.
On the 17th of April 2000, the three-judge panel of the court found all five defendants guilty of causing death by negligence. The defendants were sentenced on the 5th of June, 2000. Bar-Ilan was sentenced to one year and nine months in prison, plus a suspended sentence of 21 months. Ben-Ezra and Kargula were given 15-months in prison, plus suspended sentences of two years. Mishori served nine months in prison, plus a suspended sentence of 15 months. Eyal was sentenced to six months' community service.
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- Tal, p. 2.
- Maccabiah Games, "18th Maccabiah Basic Regulations," November 5, 2009.
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- Tal, pp. 1–3; Schmemann, "Israelis Turn..."; Slater; Schmemann, "2 Die...". Schmemann reports that Weizman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu departed immediately upon the end of the ceremony to visit the victims at the hospitals and that the games were suspended for 24 hours as a sign of mourning.
- Tal, p. 1; Schmemann, "2 Die...". Schmemann gives the name as "Smalls" and states that two of the injured were police who dived into the river to rescue victims.
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- Zycher. Rowner had already begun designing the 1997 bridge. As designed, Rowner's bridge would have been able to support 650 people at a time.
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