Remembering She’ar Yashuv, the IDF's worst accident

MILITARY AFFAIRS: Parents of soldiers who died 25 years ago in the most tragic accident in the IDF’s history look back in sorrow and acceptance.

 A MONUMENT BUILT in 2008 near Kibbutz Dafna for the 73 IDF soldiers who died in the 1997 helicopter disaster. (photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)
A MONUMENT BUILT in 2008 near Kibbutz Dafna for the 73 IDF soldiers who died in the 1997 helicopter disaster.
(photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)

It’s been 25 years since the worst accident in the history of the Israel Defense Forces, when two Lebanon-bound Sikorsky CH-53 Yasur helicopters collided over the skies of northern Israel, killing everyone on board.

It was February 4, and the two helicopters, which had taken off from two bases, were carrying 73 IDF troops to the Beaufort Castle and “Pumpkin” military outpost in the security zone in southern Lebanon.

The troops included those who served in the Nahal and Golani infantry brigades as well as Armored Corps and other units active in south Lebanon. They came from all over the country, and most were in their late teens or early 20s.

One of the helicopters crash-landed in She’ar Yashuv, a moshav used as a Galilee vacation spot. The other chopper fell in an open field near Kibbutz Dafna, where a memorial now stands for the victims, with 73 boulders, each with the name of one of the fallen surrounding a small pool.

To this day, despite a government commission of inquiry, the military has yet to give a definite reason as to why the two helicopters crashed. And that unknown has been the source of a great deal of anger and pain for bereaved families, who a quarter of a century later are still grieving for their lost loved ones.

 BATSHEVA COHEN (left) and Or Lamishpachot Association head Irit Oren Gunders. (credit: OR LAMISHPACHOT ASSOCIATION) BATSHEVA COHEN (left) and Or Lamishpachot Association head Irit Oren Gunders. (credit: OR LAMISHPACHOT ASSOCIATION)

“IT’S BEEN 25 years that have passed, and it’s still hard to digest,” said Batsheva Cohen, who lost her son, Maj. Yirmi Cohen, in the crash. “I always ask God, why did it happen? It’s hard for me; I can’t accept what happened.”

Yirmi was the second of three children and was named after her brother who was killed by terrorists during his military service in 1970. Cohen described her son as “something special” who was loved by everyone, and she confided that she had an extraordinary connection with him.

“My daughters tell their children all the stories about him,” she said, adding that it’s too difficult for her to tell them.

Cohen told The Jerusalem Post that the last time she saw her son was on her birthday. He had come with his girlfriend to celebrate with her.

“It was a Thursday; I won’t forget it. On February 4, two weeks after my birthday, he died. Instead of being happy, I’m crying. Nothing can help me smile,” she said through tears. “I am surrounded by love and warmth, and that’s good for me. But I have no love for life. They say it will get better, but it’s not. Why did this have to happen?”

Cohen told the Post that Yirmi had gone to a pre-military course and had signed for an additional three years as a career officer. She wanted him to serve and was proud, but she had one request: not to join a combat unit.

“I was scared that something would happen. But he said no, that’s where I am going to serve, and I had no choice.”

Her son wasn’t supposed to go to Beaufort that day; he was on sick leave and was supposed to go only on March 20, but, she said “something happened, and they asked him if he could go for several days. And he agreed.”

When she heard that two helicopters had crashed, Cohen didn’t think her son was on board.

“He always told me that he was inside a tank and that he was safe. I was sure that he was going to be safe because a tank was safe.

“I waited for him to call, and then I called him and begged him to answer me,” she said, her voice trembling. “I got his voice mail, that he was unavailable. I asked him, ‘Yirmi, please answer me....’”

As the hours went by, Cohen said she sat at home “crying, watching TV, and seeing all those awful images. I didn’t believe it. I pushed the thoughts away. I sat there, and the moment I heard that people were coming to the homes of the families, I heard a knock on the door. It was a knock that I didn’t want to hear.”

Twenty-five years later, her pain over the loss of her only son is still palpable.

“We don’t know why the helicopters crashed, but they were laden with ammunition, and that’s why no one survived. That’s also why it’s so hard; no one survived, and so they couldn’t tell us what happened.”

YORAM ALPER is still angry about the tragedy that killed his 21-year-old son St.-Sgt. Idan Alper.

“Where should I start? No one will tell you that their son was the nicest, smartest in the world. But he was,” he told the Post. “It’s been 25 years, but I keep thinking lately, where would he have been now?

“It’s difficult to talk about Idan. I only had 20 years with him,” Alper said.

Alper said that Idan had been excellent in mathematics and logic and described him as an “active guy” who liked all kinds of sports, especially basketball, rugby and soccer. He also enjoyed reading science fiction, crime and mystery books.

“He used to go to Lebanon with books that he had taken from the library. One of the things we got from the crash was one of his books from his kit pack that he had been reading.”

Like Yirmi Cohen, Alper was not supposed to have been on the helicopter that fateful night.

“The day before the accident, he came home because his flight was canceled because of the weather. According to his schedule, he was supposed to be home and his officer in command was supposed to go. But he took his spot,” Alper recounted.

“I heard the conversation and I have nothing against his officer in command,” he said, explaining that while he would like to meet and speak with him, the officer has left the country and has not been in touch with the bereaved families since the crash.

“I would like to speak to him, to tell him that I have nothing against him. I want him to get in touch, but if he doesn’t want to, I understand.”

According to Alper, despite the ongoing fighting in south Lebanon, the biggest worry at the time was Palestinians kidnapping Israeli hitchhikers, and that’s what concerned him the most.

“Idan loved to hitchhike, and I was worried about that. When he got to the outpost in Lebanon, I thought it was a safe place compared to the rest of the world; the world isn’t a safe place. You can’t plan everything; you can’t think of everything either,” he said.

As an immigrant to Israel, he said that he used to be annoyed by family members who asked him to move to America because of the dangers in Israel.

“I wasn’t born here, but I’m Israeli in every way. I’m not American. To tell you how many times I wake up at night and think to myself, I decided for him to be here, to be in Israel, to be in the army? I did this for myself, not for him.”

Alper told the Post that he heard about the accident from a friend who told him that there had been a plane accident in the North.

“I had no idea; I thought it was a plane, not helicopters,” he said.

“I had hoped that maybe he was injured, but as time went on I understood that there were no survivors. We got the news at 3 a.m., and I asked them why it took them so long. After 25 years I still have no answers.”

Alper has met with other families who lost their sons in the crash, including the pilots.

“You can’t avoid the thought that yes, we lost our son. But your son caused the accident that killed my son. Does it make it any better that he died, too? But there was nothing he could have done, nothing.”

Though the committee that investigated the accident, led by former IAF head David Ivry, could not find the reason behind the crash, Alper believes he knows what caused the accident.

“We were able to look into the files of inquiry, all the files. There were four big boxes with papers. We found out what caused the accident. The officer in charge went home and left his assistant, without telling him what was going on. You can’t do that!

“The helicopters flew into each other because of a bardak, or screwup” Alper said. “The helicopter that my son was in exploded because of munitions that were not supposed to be there. They tell you, ‘Okay, accidents happen,’ and yes, accidents happen all the time, but they have to do everything to make sure that they don’t happen.”

And despite the anger, the pain is still evident in Alper’s voice when he speaks of his son.

“One thing I keep thinking about, did I ever tell him that I loved him? I have no doubt that he knew that I loved him, but I don’t remember telling him that. I’m not that kind of person.”

SGT. SHAHAR Rozenberg, 19, “was killed just 20 days before his 20th birthday,” his father, Arie, told the Post.

Shahar, the youngest of three children, was drafted into the Nahal Brigade’s elite engineering corps after he got special permission from his parents due to a medical problem.

“He wanted to be drafted, he wanted to be in a combat unit, and we allowed him to, even though he wasn’t supposed to join,” Rozenberg said, adding that he did most of his military service at the “Pumpkin” outpost in the security belt.

According to Rozenberg, Shahar loved reading about psychology and about distant lands and cultures.

At the time of the accident, Rozenberg and his wife, Dvora, were in South America with another couple and saw on CNN that two helicopters had crashed in northern Israel. It took them three days to return to Israel, and then “life changed,” he recounted.

“The last time I saw him was about three weeks before he died, and I don’t know how to put it, but life was good. Life was full; it was warm like the sun. He always smiled, and it was hard to find him in a bad mood,” Rozenberg said. “I left two weeks before he died, but I spoke to him four days before the tragedy, and we laughed; he was our funny son.”

Rozenberg spoke to the Post as he was on his way to the state memorial of the disaster.

“It’s been 25 years, a quarter of a century. He was killed before his time; he didn’t die. He was killed. Usually, children bury their parents, but this time it wasn’t like that.”

Following his son’s death, he made it a mission to travel the world – something Shahar would have done had he not been killed in the tragic accident.

“I made it a mission after his death to see places all over the world. From Uganda, Zanzibar, Fiji to Guatemala, Australia, Cambodia, Vietnam... It’s not a trip, but a journey. In all these places I see in his/my eyes, smell with his/my ears, and taste with his/my mouth. After I come home, I write in order to make my son’s memory last forever.”

Shahar’s mother, Dvora, also wrote a book following her son’s death. The book – in Hebrew, titled Shahik I wish you would know, described by Arie as “authentic” – is a diary of 24 years of memories about the family.

“There was life until Shahar died, and then there’s life after he died. It might sound like a cliché, but it’s true; life goes on. We entered our eighth decade, and we love life. But we don’t forget; we always remember.

“We have children and grandchildren,” Rozenberg said. “We honor life.”

ARIE ROZENBERG, Batsheva Cohen, and Yoram Alper are all members of the Or Lamishpachot Association, a nonprofit for families of fallen IDF soldiers run by Irit Oren Gunders.

“Irit is an angel,” Batsheva, who has been part of the organization for the past 10 years, said.

“There are no words to describe what she does. I see that she goes from family to family, parent to parent, and hugs them, listens to them.

“We have moments of happiness at her events. It is because of her that we continue with our lives, to smile. Our hearts are broken, mine continues to bleed, but she surrounds us at all times.”

Gunders, who used to serve as the head of the Human Resources Division of the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps, considers the organization her “fifth child that I never planned.”

After she was released from the military, Gunders started to host support group meetings for a small circle of families who lost their sons while they were serving in the Combat Engineering Corps, and later founded the organization in 2008 in order for bereaved families to have support and to help them escape their loneliness and sense of loss and depression.

From small meetings of several families, Or Lamishpachot has since grown to over 1,500 bereaved families that meet several times throughout the year during special events organized for them, such as concerts and trips abroad. At these events, parents even get massages or hairstyling.

“I do everything from home. We don’t have offices; everything is by volunteers. And we don’t deal with monuments, but we give strength to families by helping them remember life and enjoy it,” said Gunders.

According to Gunders, whenever a soldier dies, she calls the family, including the families of the two officers from the Egoz unit who were killed by friendly fire and the two pilots who died in a helicopter accident earlier this month.

“No one wants to meet the Angel of Death; no one wants to hear that their child has died. A lot of the time my phone call hurts the family, and they hang up on me. But I don’t give up, and I call back. Every family is a challenge and a deep black hole. But every family that I help, I feel it.

“Every family that loses a son, it’s like the sky falls on them. And it’s on us to pick up the pieces and build a new path, a different path,” she said. “We make sure that they know that they are heard and seen. Our organization has no interest in anything else, only loving the families. That’s our message.”

Gunders said that bereaved families especially have to remember that even though they lost a child, they can still continue living while remembering.

“I support, I help mothers and hold their hands as they escape from the black hole that they are in. No one volunteers to give up their sons, but these parents taught them to give and to be Zionists and to do the best that they can for the country. And we must be worthy [of this] that their sons fell for the country; we cannot forget that.”

Even 25 years after a national tragedy, “not one name will be forgotten,” Gunders said.

“In less than a month it’s 25 years, and for the parents it’s like it was yesterday. The hearts of mothers are broken, a month before the memories come flooding back.... What was he wearing? Where was he? It’s like it was yesterday. Seventy-three soldiers, the best of the best... This tragic accident turned 73 families into one family,” she said.

“We hug and support these parents every day. Not one name will be forgotten.”