Pool-Hall Patrons Describe Blast Scene

Amid the jingle of slot machines, the blare of rock music and the crack of billiard balls, few patrons — dreaming of a night of gambling luck — would have noticed the young Palestinian suicide bomber slipping into the illegal nightspot. 

The blast late Tuesday crumpled the hall in the dingy building and catapulted bodies through windows and onto cars parked three floors below. The bomber killed himself and 15 others at Sheffield's billiard and gambling hall in this working-class city near Tel Aviv. Some 60 others were wounded. 

The blast was so powerful it lifted a refrigerator into the air and sheared off the front and back walls, leaving the third floor looking like a crumpled dollhouse with bodies trapped under the collapsed ceiling. The large front window shattered into a snowfall of glass that spread across the street. 

The attack was the first suicide bombing since April 12, when a 20-year-old woman blew herself up near Jerusalem's open-air market, killing six people. During the relative period of calm since then, Israelis had begun returning to public places. 

The militant Palestinian Hamas group claimed responsibility for the attack and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cut short his trip to Washington after news of the blast reached him during a meeting with President Bush. 

A second bombing attempt apparently failed Wednesday morning when a bomber detonated explosives at a road junction in northern Israel. The assailant was critically wounded, but caused no injuries to bystanders. 

"The terror returns," read a headline in the daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper Wednesday. 

Israel's recent three-week military offensive into Palestinian cities and refugee camps was triggered by a March 27 suicide bombing that killed 29 people as they sat down to a Passover holiday meal in a seaside hotel. 

However, Israel's biggest military sweep in two decades could not prevent all attacks, military commanders have said. In recent days tanks and troops have been entering Palestinian areas in brief strikes that the military said foiled planned terror attacks. 

"The battle continues and will continue until all those who believe that they can make gains through the use of terrorism will cease to exist," Sharon told reporters before leaving Washington. 

Hidden away in a nondescript building in a downtown area, Sheffield's pool hall was operating without a license and had no security guard at the door, a violation of Israeli security regulations. 

Gambling is illegal in Israel, but underground casinos abound, and police had tried to close Sheffield's down. 

Popular with Israelis, the club also attracted Arab patrons from the nearby city of Jaffa. 

When the explosion occurred at 11:03 p.m., Sheffield's was filled with Israelis celebrating the victory of a Tel Aviv soccer team in a key match. 

Ball bearings packed around the explosive added to its deadliness. The blast destroyed the establishment, scorching the interior. 

Suzie Biton was waiting for her boyfriend to finish buying their gambling chips when "suddenly everything was dark and there were bodies on the floor and broken chairs and tables and dust," she told Israel Army radio. 

"I didn't understand what had happened, I was in the back. It was my good luck. If I had been in the front hall I don't think I would have survived," she said. 

Searchlights illuminated the building Tuesday night as rescue workers climbed a fire truck ladder and paramedics brought bodies out on stretchers. 

Debris from the explosion smashed slot machines and splintered pool tables, while billiard balls were strewn across the bloodied floor. Nearby cars, their windows blown out, were smeared with blood. 

"The place was full of smoke, lots of ambulances, there was a lot of panic," said Yigal Weiss, 18, who was in the area after the blast. 

The first floor of the building held a furniture store called Baby World, advertised by a sign with a curly haired baby popping his smiling face from a carriage, and another child's furniture store called Pinocchio. 

Nearby stood factories, car dealerships, the Poseidon Greek dance club, and not far away, one of Israel's largest shopping malls. 

Hanit Azulai told Israel Radio she was on her way home when she heard "a huge explosion." 

"I turned the corner and I saw the whole building go up before my eyes," she said. "I thought it was a nightmare."