15 years later – and hazards still abound

Although the Versailles wedding hall collapse of 2001 seems far behind us, the tragedy remains etched in Jerusalem’s psyche. What – if anything – has changed for the better?

The damage: The Versailles Hall floor implosion mid-wedding left 23 dead and 380 injured (photo credit: REUTERS)
The damage: The Versailles Hall floor implosion mid-wedding left 23 dead and 380 injured
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This past January 12, Avshalom Yehuda took his daughter to visit his studio – where he hadn’t worked for the past four years – located near the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel off Gershon Agron Street.
The pair stood on the balcony to take in some fresh air. A few minutes later, they found themselves sprawled on the street, with pieces of stones and mortar still falling from the balcony.
The consequences were not disastrous. Yehuda was hospitalized briefly, and his daughter did not require hospitalization at all. However, the case put the issue of Jerusalem’s dangerous buildings back on the radar screen, at least at the municipality.
The level of awareness of structural safety is higher today than it was before May 24, 2001, when the Versailles wedding hall, on the border between Baka and Talpiot, collapsed, killing 23 and injuring 380. Some actions have been taken, such as monitoring a number of questionable buildings, but the reality is far from reassuring.
“With many buildings constructed here more than 100 years ago, we can never be totally sure that such a thing [like the balcony collapse] won’t happen again – perhaps tomorrow morning, perhaps next year,” an official at the department for dangerous structures at Safra Square tells In Jerusalem.
The balcony from which the Yehudas fell is part of one of the oldest structures outside the Old City walls, built some 130 years ago. Thus the collapse was not a total surprise, at least for the experts at the municipality. Yet, as the official noted, other than identifying, registering and monitoring every possibly dangerous building, options for effectively resolving the problem are limited.
Four years ago, an entire floor collapsed in an old building in Geula, apparently following renovations not monitored by a hazardous building specialist. The structure was not inhabited due to the construction, but neighbors in nearby buildings –which were also built about a century ago – worry that next time things could end differently. A key obstacle to resolving the problem is that even if a dangerous structure is identified, options are limited. If the building is inhabited, the municipality can rarely, if ever, offer alternative housing solutions. A broad plan of urban renewal might be required in which projects of evacuation/ construction are carried out in neighborhoods with aging dangerous buildings (ensuring that those buildings classified for preservation are taken care of properly). In such a case, a major issue would be the financing.
“Most of the tenants living in these problematic buildings are elderly. They cannot even dream of participating in the costly process of structure consolidation and renovation. So at a certain point, it is evident that what is required here is public money – a lot of public money,” concludes the official.
THE ABOVE-MENTIONED cases are linked to the problem of old structures that do not meet today’s safety and quality standards. Another aspect is the use of the Pal-Kal method, which in the case of the Versailles Hall collapse proved to pose a real danger.
The Versailles building has since been demolished, and a new building – mostly offices – has replaced it at 152 Bethlehem Road. Versailles owners Avraham Adi and Efraim Adiv were imprisoned, as was engineer Eli Ron, who invented the infamous Pal-Kal that failed so tragically in that case, along with three other engineers involved in the building’s construction. (A third owner of the hall, Uri Nisim, was sentenced to community service.)
Last year, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the Harel Group had to reimburse the owners for the damages (NIS 7 million), a step the insurance company tried to evade all these years, claiming that since Pal-Kal was the reason for the floor’s collapse and not an “unpredictable accident,” they shouldn’t have to pay for it.
Adiv, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison, declared at the end of the court ruling (on the right for insurance payment) that he hadn’t been really living all those years the trial was going on – a declaration that caused the father of Shani Dadon, one of the youngest victims, to scream in court, “My daughter is the one who hasn’t been living for all these years!” Dadon’s father had to be taken outside to calm down.
That was not the end of the story regarding the use of the Pal-Kal method. In 2008, the municipality and a construction company were sued by a group of residents in a luxury building, who discovered that the local planning and construction committee had approved the use of Pal-Kal in their building at 19 King David Street, but failed to inform those who purchased apartments. The claim was for NIS 30m., including NIS 18m. for the extensive work to monitor the structure and reduce the risks of having used Pal-Kal.
Since the approval to inhabit the building (Tofes 4) was granted by the municipality, the residents considered it the city’s administrative duty to provide means to ensure their safety. Rather than doing so, the municipality’s action in this particular case had been to issue a “second-degree danger” order for the whole building, which means there are some limitations on use.
This decision sparked anger among the residents, since it was only through this order that they initially learned that the expensive apartments they had bought were in fact built with high-risk materials. A municipality spokesman explained that the only way accurate figures on the number of dangerous buildings can be obtained is through the long process of collecting facts on the ground. Rather, such buildings are taken care of as soon as they are identified and from then on are no longer categorized as dangerous, the spokesman noted, adding that the municipality website offers a link to the list of structures built with Pal- Kal.
In any case, the experience of residents at 19 King David Street illustrates the existing situation, 15 years after the Versailles collapse, and the limited capacity of the municipality to ameliorate the situation. Because the use of the Pal-Kal method was approved for years (until the Versailles accident), there are no real grounds to force the authorities to do anything besides trying to promote evacuation/construction projects wherever possible.
That solution may be practical for old – and not very stable – buildings in neighborhoods such as Geula, Bukharim and Mea She’arim. However, for buildings constructed in the past 20 to 25 years that include Pal- Kal roofs or floors, there seem to be no easy answers.