WEDDING turns tragic, killing at least 23 in banquet hall collapse

Friday, May 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Brick by brick, rescue workers dug for survivors Friday from a wedding that turned tragic when the top floor of a banquet hall collapsed into a pile of rubble, killing at least 23 people and injuring more than 300.

Assi and Keren Sror had just become husband and wife and their 600 guests were dancing when the floor of the Versailles wedding hall caved in late Thursday, in what officials called the worst accident of its kind in Israel's history. The newlyweds, their families and friends plunged down three stories, as ceiling after ceiling buckled and crashed to the ground.

``We were on people _ those poor people,'' said Tamar Revivo, 26, from her hospital bed Friday, where she was being treated for a fractured right ankle. ``I'd see a hand. I'd see a person. They tried to get me out and I had to walk on them.''

Sara Pinhas, a relative of the groom, said dancers had just lifted the father of the groom on a chair, a traditional part of the Jewish wedding celebration, when suddenly he fell, ``and then we felt the whole building collapse, everything fell down.''

``We managed to climb down the side of the building,'' she said.

By Friday afternoon, the death toll had reached at least 23 as body after body was pulled from the pile of rubble, concrete slabs and twisted metal. An army spokesman, Lt. Olivier Rafowicz, said dozens of people were still missing. The death toll was expected to rise.

Five bodies were found near a table, including a couple embracing one another, said Yehuda Meshi Zahav, head of an ultra-Orthodox rescue volunteer group.

Maj. Gen. Gabi Ofir, in charge of the rescue operation, said 309 people were taken to hospitals with injuries. Hospital doctors said many children were among them, including a 3-month-old baby.

About 600 people were invited to the wedding, and another 50 to 55 people were working at the party, Ofir said.

The newlyweds were among the injured. Assi Sror was treated for minor injuries and released. But Keren Sror, carried out on a stretcher in her fluffy white dress, suffered hip and chest injuries and might need surgery, doctors said.

Alisa Sror, the mother of the groom, said she had just congratulated her son when the floors opened up. ``The wall collapsed on them, the floor, the tables,'' she said from her hospital bed.

Jerusalem police ruled out the possibility of a terror attack, saying the building collapsed due to structural failure. According to first reports, several supporting columns in the halls had been removed to enlarge the reception area and the floor tiles had recently been replaced.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent his condolences and promised a thorough investigation.

The Palestinian Authority, expressing its ``deep sorrow,'' also sent its condolences to the Israeli government and people and offered to help with the rescue work. The gesture came at a time of bitter conflict between the two sides, after eight months of fighting that has killed hundreds, mostly on the Palestinian side.

In new violence Friday, a Palestinian truck drove at high speed toward an Israeli roadblock in the Gaza Strip and exploded under Israeli fire. The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for what it said was a suicide attack marking the anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.

At the scene of the wedding disaster, rescue workers aided by German shepherds searched for survivors and removed bodies from the rubble, carrying them on stretchers covered with blankets. Ofir said four people were rescued after several hours, and rescue efforts would continue for several days.

``We expect there are people alive under the rubble,'' Ofir said Friday.

Rescue officials had appealed for blood donations through the week, but some centers had to turn donors away Friday, overwhelmed by the response.

Relatives, desperately seeking news of their loved ones, gathered in front of Jerusalem hospitals. ``Frieda, Dudu!'' one man shouted, searching for his wife and brother.

The special Israeli army rescue unit that has been sent abroad in the past to dig out earthquake victims in India and Turkey was working at the scene.

Soldiers in yellow helmets used bulldozers, cranes and a conveyer belt to pull out the larger pieces of rubble and metal shards from the cavernous hole, but the mounds of debris were so unstable they tumbled at the touch of heavy machinery.

The wedding took place on the top floor of the building, and the two floors below were not being used. The bottom floor was a parking garage.

Public Security Minister Uzi Landau said a committee of experts would be formed to investigate the cause.

The building was constructed in 1986. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said his preliminary examination of the building file disclosed findings ``that trouble me very much.'' He did not give details but suggested a criminal investigation may be required.

Police were questioning the owner of the hall, the engineer who designed it and others connected with the structure, Israel radio reported.

Engineer Shaul Nevo, a reserve army major taking part in the rescue, said the type of construction was to blame. He said several other buildings similarly built, with thin concrete layers, have collapsed in the past.

Ofir said it was the worst disaster involving a civilian building in Israel's history. On April 30, 1992, a mudslide collapsed the walls of a cafe in Jerusalem's Old City, killing 23 people and injuring 22.