Shalom Tower fire 311.
(photo credit: Aloni Mor)
Two major Israeli urban centers have suffered near-mega- disasters in the past
few days, underscoring ever-present dangers in the hearts of our
Last week’s fire on the 29th story of the Shalom Tower
highlighted, yet again, how ill-equipped our firefighting services are to deal
with skyscraper crises.
Then Tuesday’s accident at Haifa’s oil
refineries, which cost three lives, reminded those who need reminding that
safety precautions aren’t optional recommendations for a huge facility on the
doorstep of densely populated neighborhoods.
THE 34-storey Shalom Mayer
Tower was Israel’s first skyscraper when inaugurated in 1965. It was then the
Mideast’s tallest building and on par with Europe’s structures at the time.
However, the Shalom Tower has since lost its distinction and now ranks only 12th
in height among the country’s 45 skyscrapers, most of them in greater Tel Aviv.
This means that dangers threatening the Shalom Tower are not unique to it
Firefighters literally had an uphill task. With the electricity
and elevators off, they had to scramble 29 flights up, carrying oxygen tanks and
Besides their own physical distress, the firemen
also experienced difficulties in pumping water to such elevations.
longest ladder in the entire country – and there’s only one – is 44-meters tall
(reaching roughly 13 floors up). It’s estimated that nationally 45 more such
ladders are needed, and even they couldn’t deal with skyscraper
Israel also lacks about 250 fire-trucks, while many of the
now in-service vehicles are antiquated. We also have less than 1,700 firemen
nationwide when we need at least 2,000. Elsewhere in the West it’s one
firefighter per 1,000 people. Our ratio is 1:5,000.
For decades there has
been talk about equipping our fire-crews with amphibian planes capable of
ferrying in water and dousing flames from above. Such planes aren’t only the
answer for skyscrapers but also for the sort of brush fires that have decimated
many Golan nature reserves in recent months. However, these planes are costly
and each day that passes disaster-free is all too evidently another day that the
expense can be put off and out-of-mind.
THE HAIFA-based Oil Refineries
Ltd. (ORL) is Israel’s largest refinery. This state-of-the-art facility refines
some 10 million tons of crude oil annually and produces a broad range of
materials for manufacturing, transport, private consumption, agriculture and
This is heavy industry at its heaviest and its processes
are complex and hazardous. It goes without saying that safety precautions are
paramount, especially considering the ORL’s location.
Yet the men who did
seasonal maintenance work on one of the gas facilities were personnel brought in
by an external contractor. The ORL has no way of ascertaining how well briefed
such outside workers are about safety procedures. Its control is bound to be
relatively partial under such circumstances.
Precisely what happened and
why these men took off their masks in a toxic setting is secondary. The bottom
line is that the buck stops with the ORL higher-ups. If they don’t impose the
most stringent discipline, any failures are ultimately their responsibility,
even if the immediate fault is ascribed to an itinerant’s carelessness. It’s up
to the upper echelons to make sure that there are no deviations from safety
This is essential not only for the general public and the
environment but for ORL itself as it currently expands considerably, to the
distinct displeasure of its neighbors and environmentalists. ORL expansion
includes a catalytic regeneration plant and hydrogen facility, as well as a new
$500 million, 25,000 barrel-a-day hydrocracker for diesel and jet-fuel
Haifa Bay’s giant is due to become much more gigantic in the
near future. This heralds not only progress but also heightened safety concerns
for the greater Haifa area.
ONE NEEDN’T be an alarmist to understand that
either of the two recent incidents could have triggered major calamities with
incalculable ramifications. That neither did was not because the system
functioned flawlessly, but because of good fortune.
In each case we are
dealing with eminently avoidable or reducible risks. Such risks must urgently be
internalized and countered. We plainly cannot always count on good fortune.