JERUSALEM, April 18 (JTA) An Israeli court has convicted five people in the collapse of a bridge at the Maccabiah Games in 1997 that left four Australian athletes dead and scores of others injured.
Following a trial that lasted more than two years, at which more than 80 witnesses testified about the disaster at the opening ceremonies of the “Jewish Olympics,” a three-judge panel found the five guilty of negligence.
The offense can carry up to a four-year jail term, according to a prosecutor. Sentences will be handed out at a later date.
The five who were convicted Monday were Baruch Karagula and Yehoshua Ben-Ezra, the contractors; Micha Bar-Ilan, the bridge’s engineer; Adam Mishori, the head of Irgunit, the firm that subcontracted to Baruch and Karagula; and Yoram Eyal, the head of the organizing committee for the international games.
Two Australian athletes were immediately killed July 14, 1997, and hundreds of other participants at the Games injured when the pedestrian bridge in the city of Ramat Gan collapsed, plunging scores of people into the Yarkon River.
Two more Australians died weeks later as a result of complications linked to contaminants in the river and dozens of athletes who were injured in the bridge collapse later suffered illnesses.
Australian Jews applauded the verdict.
“Nothing can ever truly compensate those who lost loved ones and have suffered such a tremendous diminishment of their quality of life,” said Nina Bassat, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, an umbrella group. “What the verdict affirms is that the tragedy was avoidable and happened because of criminal negligence.”
Some of the victims’ relatives also expressed relief at the verdict.
Colin Elterman, whose 18-year-old daughter, Sasha, has undergone more than 30 operations since falling into the Yarkon, said the verdict sent a “clear message” to all those who sit on the boards of “inefficient organizations that they can not play fast and loose with public safety.”
Now is the time for the Maccabi World Union to “reorganize, rebuild and be the caring organization it claims to be,” he said.
Henry Sawicki, whose wife, Elizabeth, died two weeks after the bridge collapse from lung complications that hospital officials attributed to the polluted river, said the court’s finding was “great news” and that “a jail sentence is the least they should get.”
Lynne Zines, the widow of another victim, Warren, who also died from an infection caused by ingesting the polluted water, said the verdict is “just a big relief, and I hope it will lead to the resignations” of other Maccabi officials.
Her son Adam said the relatives had never sought vengeance against those responsible for the bridge collapse, “but to get justice for the pain and suffering we have gone through over the past three years.”
A week after the collapse, an Israeli commission found that the accident was caused by a chain of failures involving the bridge’s planning and construction.
In October 1997, an Australian newspaper that had tests conducted on the river’s water concluded that the athletes “fell into a deadly cocktail of chemicals and pollutants” resembling “diluted sewage.”
Many of the Australian athletes have filed lawsuits against the Games’ organizers, the Maccabi World Union and the builders of the bridge, demanding damages for injuries, mental anguish and loss of income.
Ehud Stein, a lawyer representing the athletes, said Monday’s ruling could prove decisive in the civil lawsuits.
Announcing Monday’s decision, the panel said that there had been a complete lack of coordination between the parties responsible for building the bridge.
Eyal, the head of the organizing committee, sounded a repentant note after the verdict was read.
“The regret and pain of the incident will certainly accompany me and my colleagues in Maccabi until the end of our lives,” he said. “We just hope the lessons will be learned and compensation arranged quickly because the suffering of the families is awful.”
He also described the Games as a “great Zionist enterprise” that he hopes will “continue to exist in the future.”
(JTA correspondent Jeremy Jones in Sydney, Australia, contributed to this report.)