Israel Stops Rescue Efforts, Saying Everyone Accounted For
JERUSALEM – Rescue workers stopped searching Saturday for survivors of a deadly wedding hall collapse Thursday, saying all 600 guests and 50 employees have been accounted for.
Maj. Gen. Gabi Ofir said the risk of continuing the searches in the unstable ruins of the three-story building was too great to continue combing the rubble.
The collapse killed 24, including a 3-year-old boy, and injured 300. More than 160 people remained hospitalized Saturday, including 16 in serious condition.
At the site of what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a "national disaster," rescue workers led by an ultra-Orthodox Jew in army fatigues and draped with a white prayer shawl held morning prayers in a makeshift tarp morgue, bowing their heads and reciting prayers.
The observant Jews among the rescue workers had received rare permission from rabbis to work on the Sabbath, the biblically mandated day of rest. In Jewish tradition, the value of saving lives overrides any other religious commandment. Cameras the size of a pen and sniffing dogs aided the search efforts.
Touring the site, Sharon said he would convene a special Cabinet meeting to look into the possibility of launching an official commission of inquiry.
Assi and Keren Sror had just become husband and wife and their guests were dancing when the floor of the wedding hall caved in. The newlyweds, their families and friends fell into the abyss and plunged down three stories, as ceiling after ceiling buckled and crashed to the ground.
The instant the floor collapsed was captured on videotape, which is being aired on Fox News Channel.
Amid suspicion that shoddy construction was to blame for the catastrophe at the Versailles banquet hall, police arrested eight people and said officials would decide later Saturday whether to extend their detention. The building's four owners, an engineer, a contractor and the head of the company that carried out renovations three months ago were among those arrested, police said.
The eighth man taken into custody was the inventor of a cheaper, lightweight construction method used in the Versailles hall and in many public buildings built in Israel in the 1980s, police said Saturday. The method, using metal plates and thinner layers of cement, was barred in 1996.
According to Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, the building was constructed in 1986. The mayor said his preliminary examination of the building file disclosed findings "that trouble me very much."
Israel TV's Channel Two said an initial inquiry pointed to negligence and an attempted cover-up. Late Thursday, one of the engineers under suspicion sent a worker to the municipal offices in Jerusalem to try to snatch documents linked to the construction, the report said. Police refused comment on the report.
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.
Jerusalem police ruled out the possibility of a terror attack, saying the building collapsed because of structural failure. Several supporting columns in the halls had also been removed to enlarge the reception area, and the floor tiles had recently been replaced, the reports said.
The managing director of the ceiling manufacturer insisted that the structure wouldn't have collapsed if the support column hadn't been removed, Israel television reported.
Videotape of the disaster tells a horrific story. Screaming guests on the edges of the dance floor peered down into the crater in disbelief. The tape shows one man scooping up a little girl in the mayhem. An elderly man walks right up to the large hole, and is escorted away by a woman.
The footage shows a man dancing with a baby wearing a white frilly dress. Later photos showed the baby, her face scratched, alive in the arms of a woman
"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 bride 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.
Yehuda Meshi Zahav, head of a group that collects remains after terrorist attacks, said five bodies were found sitting around a table. A couple died hugging each other.
An Israeli army official, Gideon Baron, said Saturday no relatives of the guests who attended the wedding had inquired about missing people in recent hours and no bodies were recovered overnight.
Maj. 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.
The Palestinian Authority sent its condolences to the Israeli government 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.
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 was taking place on the top floor of the building, and the two floors below were not being used. The bottom floor was a parking garage.
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.
--The Associated Press contributed to this report