Happiest of Occasions Destroyed by Collapse
JERUSALEM – The five guests stayed seated around a corner table to watch as others started to celebrate the marriage of Assi and Keren Sror with the stomping, heart-pounding dancing typical of Jewish weddings.
Rescue workers found them Friday -- still near the table, a couple embracing -- after they plunged to their deaths when the three-story banquet hall caved in, killing at least 23 people.
More than 300 people -- half of the invited guests -- were taken to hospitals with injuries in what officials said was the worst disaster involving a civilian building in Israel's history.
Hundreds of rescue workers dug through the rubble with bulldozers, cranes and their hands, searching for survivors.
Crews slowly made their way toward the table, their work hampered by a mangled ceiling that had fallen on the area. It appeared the table and chairs had slid down the floor as it began to cave in, said Yehuda Meshi Zahav, head of a volunteer unit.
"A couple was hugging each other," he said, describing the scene.
Amir Lipski, 47, said he had remained seated at a banquet table to eat the first course that had just been served when a crowd of guests gathered in a circle and began stomping their feet.
They hoisted the father of the groom, Tsion Sror, on a chair and started dancing.
"You could feel the beat on the floor," Lipski said Friday from his hospital bed, adding that at first, he thought the tremor was an earthquake that would stop in a second.
"And suddenly I felt everything beginning to collapse. A hole formed underneath us and I began to free-fall. I felt objects hitting me and I felt like I was falling forever. As I fell, my wife and I hugged each other," he said.
The two fell 90 feet as lower-floor ceilings gave way. They ended up on a heap of rubble with a table over their heads.
"When we reached the bottom there was a second of silence and screams. It was a terrible thing to see people crushed. You don't know if under every stone it could be a person."
The two walked out from the rubble with little help. Lipski had broken ribs and cuts on his head and shoulders. His wife was in intensive care with a serious head injury.
In the panic and dark of the rubble-filled crater, Yuval Sror, a relative of the groom, lost his daughter, learning only Friday morning that she had been in surgery. He said he was among the dancers celebrating when the floor went out from under them.
"I hugged my son tightly," he told Israeli television. "We fell one floor and then another and a floor fell on us until we were at the bottom, with all the rubble and stones on us.
"We couldn't do anything," he said. "And then my son cried, 'Daddy help me! Pull me out!"'
Like many Israeli wedding halls, the building in the Talpiot industrial area in southern Jerusalem, is isolated from residential areas so that the often earsplitting revelry can continue into the early hours without disturbing neighbors.
On Friday, the scene at the crater of the wedding hall was a sea of hard hats, dump trucks and heavy moving equipment as rescue workers hauled debris and, sometimes, a body covered in black plastic on a stretcher. Latex gloves worn by the rescue workers were strewn across the ground.
In the parking lot stood a new silver Audi sedan, decorated with curled ribbons and bows, that was to have taken the newlyweds -- who both survived -- off on their honeymoon.