NETANYA, Israel – Members of the Donenhirsch family excitedly took their seats around a table in a hotel banquet room Wednesday, dressed in their holiday finery and ready to usher in the Passover holiday.
Moments later, they were thrown against a wall by an enormous explosion.
``Suddenly, it was hell,'' history teacher Nechama Donenhirsch, 52, said from her hospital bed. ``My daughter, 16 years old, held me and said to me to calm me, `You are alive. I'm alive. Don't worry, we are alive.'''
The suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in the Mediterranean resort of Netanya killed 20 Israelis and the bomber and wounded more than 130 guests.
The bomber, a 25-year-old member of the Islamic militant group Hamas, knew his target well. He used to work in hotels in Netanya and other Israeli cities, Palestinian police said.
At about 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, more than 200 guests began taking their seats in the Park Hotel banquet hall, ready for the Passover Seder, a ritual meal commemorating the exodus of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Round tables were covered with white linen and elaborate Seder place settings.
Guests were dressed in their holiday finest — women in festive dresses and men in white shirts and dark pants.
At about that time, the bomber passed an armed guard at the hotel entrance. The assailant, later identified as Abdel Baset Odeh from the West Bank town of Tulkarem, was carrying a large bag with explosives but did not arouse the guard's suspicions.
Witnesses said a reception clerk tried to alert security when the attacker walked past her station to the dining room.
By then, it was too late.
A huge blast tore through the hall, blowing out windows and walls, overturning tables and chairs.
``There was the smell of smoke and dust in my mouth and a ringing in my ears,'' said Donenhirsch, her eyes red from crying.
She said pieces of ceiling fell on her sister's head and her son, Itai, yelled for everyone to take cover under tables. The explosion knocked out the electricity, plunging the hall into darkness as people screamed for help.
Itai Donenhirsch said the family sat just three or four yards from where the bomber blew himself up.
``I felt shock waves and was pushed under the table and everything blacked out,'' he said.
Nechama Donenhirsch said that as she and her relatives ran from the inferno, they saw a little girl, maybe 10 to 12 years old, lying on the ground.
``The face of the little girl was so nice, it was as if she was surprised — big, big open eyes — but surely dead,'' Nechama Donenhirsch said. ``We ran ... over dead people, all in pieces.''
Some of the wounded stumbled out of the darkened lobby while others were rolled to ambulances on stretchers. One little boy had an oxygen mask pushed over his face and a dazed elderly woman was escorted out by a policeman.
The Park Hotel is near Netanya's beach front. Several hours after the attack, Israelis hurried past the hotel, some carrying trays of food covered in aluminum foil — Seder leftovers.
It was not the first time a seaside hotel in Netanya was targeted by Palestinians. On March 9, two gunmen opened fire on the lobby of another hotel as families dined there at the end of the Jewish Sabbath.
Two Israelis, including a baby, were killed before the gunmen were shot dead by police.