Australian athletes deal with memory of disaster

SYDNEY, Australia, July 10 (JTA) — All the teams coming to next week’s Maccabiah Games have to contend with the tense security situation in Israel, but Australia’s team has to contend with an additional challenge: the legacy of the bridge disaster at the last Games four years ago.

It was July 14, 1997, when a hastily constructed footbridge leading to the stadium in Ramat Gan gave way, sending athletes marching in the opening ceremony plunging into the polluted water of the Yarkon River below.

Soccer player Phil Moss, who is returning to the Games that begin this year on July 16, recalls that he was about to set foot on the bridge when it began to shake, crack and give way.

Pushed backward, Moss watched helplessly as his Australian teammates lost their balance and plunged into the river below. Overcome by panic, he saw his friends crashing into each other, submerging those already in the water, who were struggling to get their heads above the surface.

Then Moss realized that his brother, Jon, a member of Australia’s cricket team, was in there somewhere.

“He was one of the first to hit the water,” Moss recalls. “My immediate reaction was to race to the river bank and do anything I could to find him.”

Moss spotted his brother emerging from the tangled mass of athletes and sections of broken bridge in the river. But some of his teammates were not so lucky.

Tenpin bowlers Greg Small and Yetty Bennett drowned, and bridge player Elizabeth Sawicki and lawn bowler Warren Zines died in the ensuing weeks.

Teen-age tennis player Sasha Elterman fell critically ill as a result of swallowing polluted water, and subsequently underwent more than 30 operations. In all, about 70 athletes were injured.

Four years later, Moss, 29, now a professional soccer player with Sydney’s Northern Spirit, says the decision to compete in this year’s Games was not difficult. In fact, he says, the bridge tragedy is “part of my inspiration to return.”

“I want to go there to spread the message that Australia is a country that sticks together. I can understand that some of the bridge victims’ families would disapprove, but I hope they understand the motivations behind why we want to go back,” he says. “If I was one of those who were tragically killed in that accident, one of my dying wishes would be for the Australian team to go back and hold their heads up high.”

Adding to the pressure is the tense security situation in Israel.

Just last month, the Games were about to be postponed due to security concerns, the first time the Games would have been cancelled since World War II. At the last minute, however, the Maccabiah steering committee decided to hold the Games as scheduled.

As a result of the situation, however, only about 2,000 athletes will compete, instead of the original 5,000, with Australia sending about 60 athletes and officials.

Australia’s own preparations were delayed because its decision to return was contingent on the bridge compensation claims being settled. The vast majority have now been resolved, with only a handful still to be finalized.

Melbourne track athlete Zac Ashkanasy, 27, won Australia’s first gold medal at the 1997 Games in the 1,500-meter run. In the following months, he struggled to come to terms with emotions that fluctuated between anger and grief.

As one of the flagbearers leading the Australian team into the opening ceremony, he was on the bridge when it collapsed.

“I thought I was going to die,” he says.

It took him two years to confront his feelings about the experience. Ashkanasy strongly believes that returning to the Games is a necessary part of the healing process.

“If you don’t go, the resentment you’ve built up inside will take longer to resolve,” he says.

He also believes it is essential for an Australian contingent to be present at the memorial service planned for July 15, the eve of the Games.

An Israeli court found five people guilty of negligence in the collapse, saying the temporary footbridge had been built haphazardly, without any proper plan, foundation or supervision.

Sixth-time Maccabiah participant and Melbourne golfer Robbie Gore, 39, is equally adamant about Australians participating in the Games.

“Not going back is not going to help anyone,” Gore says. “It’s not meant to trivialize the loss of the victims’ families or their sense of bereavement, but we have to go forward. We can best honor their memory by continuing to attend the event in which they obviously believed strongly enough to be there in the first place.”

The families of the four victims “have always had my sympathies,” agrees Sydney golfer Roy Vandersluis, 54. “No money can replace their loved ones, but the Games will go on regardless.”

Despite the security risks, Vandersluis is comfortable with the decision to hold the Games.

“There’s a little bit of the attitude that if you don’t go, you let the Palestinians win,” he says. “Israel will always be under pressure from Arabs, and it’s important that the rest of the world supports them.”

In preparation for the Games, the Australian team has attended safety seminars. Yet most members express confidence in Israel’s ability to manage security.

Soccer player Jon Pillemer, 33, who will be participating in his fourth Games, is just excited to be going back after all the uncertainty.

“I’ve played in many other tournaments,” he says, “but being Jewish and competing in Maccabiah by far holds my most special memories.”

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