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Australian Athletes Tell of Trauma After ’97 Maccabiah Games Disaster

An Israeli legislator was in Australia this week to gather testimony for a Knesset inquiry into the fatal bridge collapse at the 1997 Maccabiah Games.

Knesset member Eliezer Sandberg held hearings in Melbourne and Sydney, where Australian athletes testified about the injuries and trauma they suffered when the bridge collapsed during the Games’ opening ceremonies, leaving four Australian athletes dead and scores of others injured.

Victims’ families also testified, telling how their lives had been affected by the tragedy.

Leaders of Australian Jewry spoke of how the local community has long been angered by the delay in paying compensation claims and by what it views as the lack of contrition on the part of the Maccabi World Union leadership.

In April, an Israeli court convicted five people — including the head of the Games’ organizing committee and the engineer and contractor who built the bridge — for criminal negligence.

During this week’s testimony, Suzanne Small related how she had watched desperate attempts to revive her husband, Greg, and how she has had to try to rebuild her life with her two young children since his death.

"My husband and my life was dead, his body was lifeless, his face blue and swollen," she said.

Lynne Zines, whose husband, Warren, died as a result of injuries sustained in the accident, said that every aspect of her life had been affected by the tragedy.

Denese Brick, the captain of Australia’s lawn bowling team, which won a gold medal at the Games, told how she is now afraid of swimming and taking airplane flights.

Brick, who was resuscitated after almost drowning in the bridge collapse, told Sandberg that the water was not deep but that "I just could not get through the bodies and the limbs above me."

Henry Sawicki, whose wife, Elizabeth, died in the accident, said angrily that he had received virtually no support from the Maccabi World Union.

After the tragedy, Maccabi Australia formally pulled out of the Maccabi World Union.

Jewish community leaders testified that Maccabi associations around the world had shown little sympathy or understanding for the plight of the victims.

Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, whose sister was one of more than 60 team members injured in the collapse, said it was ironic that the Maccabi World Union had enough money to run the next Maccabiah Games while many Australian athletes were waiting for compensation for injuries and suffering from the 1997 Games.

"Given the depth of feeling about this issue in Australia, it is important that no officials associated with the Maccabiah World Union in 1997 or since accompany the Israeli Olympic team to Sydney later this year" for the Olympic Games, Rubenstein said.

"Otherwise, sadly, the result could be the painful spectacle of demonstrations against the Israeli Olympic Team by Australian Jews."

The president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Nina Bassat, called on Israel to act as "insurer of first resort" to help pay the claims of the Australian athletes and their families.

She also spoke of "the feeling of betrayal felt by the Australian Maccabi team that the hurt they suffered was not from some unforeseeable political event, but from the criminal negligence of their own people."

Philip Bliss, the president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, said the "deaths and injuries were enough to make people here question just how safe our children are when they go on Israel programs."

He charged that Israel has refused to close "the compensation saga," adding that this "has left a wound that will take years to heal. For some that wound will always fester."

Suzanne Small reflected the views of most of those who gave testimony when she testified how, as she watched the failed attempts to revive her husband, "I was thinking, `How could our own people do this?’"

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