July 16, 1997 in Nation/World

Engineer Says Bridge Could Hold Only 100 Israel, Australia Launch Probes Into Collapse That Killed 2 At Games

Associated Press
 

Israel and Australia started independent investigations Tuesday into a bridge collapse that killed two Australian athletes. Israeli investigators reportedly questioned contractors who built the bridge.

The Australian team was gathering its own evidence, interviewing athletes who witnessed the collapse during Monday’s opening ceremony for the international Maccabiah Games at the Ramat Gan sports stadium outside Tel Aviv.

Micha Bar-Ilan, the engineer who approved the bridge, said he had warned it could not support more than 100 people.

“I insisted, and the client agreed, that a man would be posted at the entrance to the bridge and would not allow more than 100 people onto it at any one time,” he told Israel TV.

Police Minister Avigdor Kahalani said he did not know of any such restriction. Israeli radio stations said Bar-Ilan had been questioned by police.

Video shot before the collapse showed Australian athletes walking onto the bridge en masse, and no one was visible counting them. Israel TV said nearly the entire Australian team of 380 was on the bridge when it fell, although witnesses put the number at about 100.

The games, which drew some 5,500 Jewish athletes from around the world, were suspended for a day of mourning Tuesday. The first competitions will be held today.

The daily Haaretz newspaper said the Israeli army had offered to build the bridge across the Yarkon River into the stadium for $85,700, but lost out to a private company which offered to do the work for $20,000.

The Maariv daily said organizers ignored warnings by security officials that the 65-foot-long bridge would not be safe.

Police chief Assaf Hefetz ruled out sabotage Monday, saying there was “something wrong with this bridge.”

The collapse killed two members of the Australian 10-pin bowling team: Gregory Small, 37, and Yetty Bennett, 50. Sixty-four athletes were injured, 63 Australians and one Austrian, and seven were in serious condition.

In an emotional meeting Tuesday, sobbing Australian athletes recited prayers for the dead, observed a moment of silence and - after some deliberation - decided to compete. Later, a memorial service was held by the games’ organizers.

Athletes talked with psychologists about the frightening scene that began when the bridge buckled, sending about 80 team members sliding 25 feet into the shallow river. Athletes spilled onto one another, struggling to get out of the water.

A public debate erupted over the decision not to call off the opening ceremony, which included fireworks and dancing. “Disgrace” declared a headline in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Ezer Weizman left the festivities to visit the injured. Netanyahu later said the ceremony should have been stopped.

© Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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