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Maccabiah bridge collapse remembered

Australian Ambassador to Israel James Larsen views memorial to Australian victims of 1997 Maccabiah Games bridge collapse during commemorative ceremony July 13. (Phillip Foxman)

Australian Ambassador to Israel James Larsen views memorial to Australian victims of 1997 Maccabiah Games bridge collapse during commemorative ceremony July 13. (Phillip Foxman)

SYDNEY (JTA) – A decade after four Australians perished in the 1997 Maccabiah bridge disaster, those most affected by the incident say they’ve gradually learned to accept what happened.

Except for one festering wound.

As memorial services were held in Israel and Australia over the weekend to remember those killed after a bridge over the polluted Yarkon River collapsed during the 1997 Maccabiah Games, plunging the Australian team into toxic waters, many here remain angry that the man they say is responsible for the deaths continues to be employed by the Maccabi World Union.

Yoram Eyal was chairman of the organizing committee of the 15th Maccabiah and the man who commissioned the temporary bridge. Today he is general manager of the Kfar Maccabiah village and sits on the executive of Maccabi World Union.

“It’s disgusting,” said Frank Gaensler, who was pronounced clinically dead when he was pulled from the river, only to be revived and rushed to the hospital, where he spent five days in a coma. “It’s a slap in the face to all of us.”

Of the five men convicted of criminal negligence in 2000, four received jail sentences; Eyal was given six months of community service.

Colin Elterman, whose 15-year-old daughter Sasha was the most critical of the 60 or so injured Australians, described Eyal’s continued employment as “a humiliation.”

“Paul Wolfowitz resigns at the World Bank, even President Moshe Katsav steps aside. All this, despite no deaths. But over at Maccabi, Yoram Eyal is promoted. If it were not so sad, it would be very funny,” Elterman said.

Adam Zines, whose 54-year-old father Warren deteriorated for almost a month before the Yarkon’s toxic pollutants claimed his life, said he was “totally appalled.”

The editorial in this week’s commemorative edition of the Australian Jewish News described Eyal’s promotions as “scandalous.”

Eyal declined to comment when contacted by JTA. He has refused to be interviewed by Australian media ever since the disaster.

But Maccabi World Union President Jeanne Futeran defended Eyal during a recent visit to Australia. “He’s a good guy; he doesn’t deserve to be further hassled over what happened. He’s never forgiven himself; he never will forgive himself,” she told the Australian Jewish News.

Gaensler, who survived the accident, was one of the lucky ones. His partner, Yetty Bennett, 50, was not so fortunate. She died the night of the disaster along with Greg Small, 37, whose wife Suzanne watched as attempts to resuscitate her husband failed.

The fourth Australian victim, Elizabeth Sawicki, 47, succumbed to poison two weeks after the bridge collapse. At the time, the Yarkon River was one of Israel’s most polluted waterways. Parts of the river have since been cleaned up, but other sections remain dangerously toxic.

Last Friday, about 50 people attended a memorial service at the site of the disaster, in Ramat Gan. Australian Ambassador to Israel James Larsen and Maccabi World Union Director-General Eyal Tiberger laid wreaths at the Bridge of Remembrance, a permanent structure built after the tragedy.

In Australia, prayer services were held in synagogues in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and the Gold Coast on Saturday, exactly 10 years since the July 14, 1997 disaster. On Sunday, a memorial made of Jerusalem stone was unveiled at Melbourne’s main Jewish cemetery, and four trees were planted in memory of the deceased.

In his address at the unveiling, Maccabi Australia president Harry Procel, who survived the bridge collapse, apologized to the victims’ families.

“Everyone made mistakes at the time. Maccabi Australia, Maccabi World Union—even the State of Israel.”

“It was an appropriate time for us to remember,” he told JTA after the ceremony. “It was probably the biggest tragedy Australian Jewry has suffered.”

In Israel on Sunday, Maccabi World Union held a special executive meeting to mark the anniversary and sent letters to the four families expressing their “profound sorrow and sincere regret for their loss.”

Many of those affected by the disaster said they found closure at the 2005 Maccabiah, when Australia sent its largest-ever delegation to the games and representatives of the victims’ families attended a service at which the memorial was unveiled.

At that event, Maccabi Australia had to fight to remove Yoram Eyal from the VIP section of the stadium at so that the Australians would not have to march past him.

For years after the tragedy, ties between Australian Jewry and Israel suffered. Tensions cooled somewhat after an independent commission of inquiry was launched in the Knesset in 1998, and in 2000 Maccabi World Union president Ron Bakalarz and chairman Uzi Netanel finally resigned following pressure from Australian Jewry.

In 2003, the victims were paid about $17.4 million in compensation. Some $8.7 million of that went to the family of Sasha Elterman, who underwent more than 30 brain and lung operations and miraculously survived the bridge collapse.

Asked how he was coping on the eve of the anniversary of the tragedy, Gaensler told JTA, “It will always be there with me. It is very difficult. Today is a bad day, and tomorrow is worse. But I fought my demons and won.”

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