Bridge tragedy remembered

Twenty-five years after the Maccabiah Bridge disaster, few will forget the awful images of people plunging into the Yarkon River, as survivors remember in vivid detail the crackling of the bridge as it began to collapse.

AN unforgettable and avoidable tragedy struck the Jewish community 25 years ago, when a pedestrian bridge leading into Tel Aviv’s Ramat Gan Stadium collapsed with almost 100 members of the Australian Maccabiah team on it.

On July 14, 1997, what should have been a joyous occasion as the team marched towards the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games, soon turned into panic and disaster.

Few will forget the awful images of people plunging into the Yarkon River and scrambling in, or being pulled out of, the murky water and onto the mangled wreckage of the bridge.

Tragically Greg Small, 37, Yetty Bennett, 50, Elizabeth Sawicki, 47, and Warren Zines, 56, lost their lives, while dozens more athletes and officials were injured.

A number of those hospitalised battled to fight off infections caused by a fungus found in the Yarkon’s toxic water.

Young tennis player Sasha Elterman, just 15 at the time, remained in critical condition for two weeks and underwent countless surgeries in the six months following the collapse.

Despite the overwhelming grief and shock, the team decided to remain in Israel and compete in honour of their fallen teammates, following an impassioned plea by then Israeli president Ezer Weizman.

Tom Goldman, then president of Maccabi Australia, said at the time, “We are proud and moved by the unbelievable display of strength, courage and pride of our team members to play on and compete at this Maccabiah. We are also indebted to the large number of Australian team members who risked their lives to save the lives of others in this tragedy.”

The “Games of grief”, as The AJN described them at the time, paused for a 24-hour mourning period before they were resumed and, despite the trauma, Australia went on to win a record number (at the time) of 60 medals.

But to this day, 25 years later, survivors remember in vivid detail the crackling of the bridge as it began to collapse – a sound many at first mistook for gun fire – the noise of helicopters hovering and the shocking aftermath.

It makes it all the more poignant that the opening ceremony of the 21st Maccabiah Games takes place today (Thursday) – 25 years to the day that the bridge collapsed.

This year Australia has taken 560 athletes, the third largest team at the Games behind Israel and the USA, and the entire contingent attended a memorial service earlier this week to pay tribute to the four victims and their families.

Wearing shirts marked 1997 in tribute, they quietly marched across the Yarkon River and laid wreaths next to a memorial stone.

Many of the athletes in the current team were not even born 25 years ago and, during the service, Maccabi Australia president Jeff Sher urged them to close their eyes “and imagine the feelings of hope, excitement and anticipation that the Australian team had on the night of July 14, 1997… just like you”.

“Try to imagine if you can the tragedy of what unfolded – when the bridge that would give them the rite of passage to the time of their lives, ­collapsed.”

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