What will happen to the sole survivor of the Italian cable car crash?

Earlier in September, Eitan Biran, 6, was taken to Israel by his grandfather. On Thursday, the first custody hearing was held in a court in Tel Aviv.

 ITALIAN POLICE AND rescue service members are seen near the crashed cable car after it collapsed in Stresa, near Lake Maggiore, in May. (photo credit: REUTERS)
ITALIAN POLICE AND rescue service members are seen near the crashed cable car after it collapsed in Stresa, near Lake Maggiore, in May.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Four months ago, six-year-old Israeli Eitan Biran miraculously survived a cable car crash in northern Italy that killed 14 people, including his parents, little brother and a set of great-grandparents. Now the dispute over his custody has turned into an open war between the two sides of the family, among religious tensions, reciprocal accusations of brain-washing and an (alleged) international kidnapping. But the question regarding where the boy will grow up is far from being resolved.

Sunday, May 23 appeared to mark the perfect moment for a day trip in Pavia, where the Biran family used to live. The sun was shining and many COVID restrictions had just been lifted, allowing tourist sites to reopen.

Amit Biran, 30, had come to Italy to study medicine several years earlier. He lived with his wife, Tal Peleg, 27, and their two children, Eitan and two-year-old Tom, in the town some 35 km. south of Milan and renowned for its university, which attracts many Israelis. The Birans also held Italian citizenship through an Italian ancestor of Tal’s.

That Sunday was special also because Tal’s grandparents, the children’s great-grandparents, Barbara Cohen Konisky, 71, and Itshak Cohen, 82, had arrived from Israel for a visit a few days earlier.

The family decided to visit a little corner of paradise about an hour and a half drive from Pavia: Stresa, a town on the Lake Maggiore shores. Since the beginning of the 1970s, among its most popular attractions, Stresa had offered a cable car connecting the lake with the top of the nearby Mottarone mountain, in about 20 minutes. For the Birans, it promised to be a memorable experience.

The family boarded the gondola together with another nine people – couples celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, other families enjoying the sunny Sunday, all ready to spot the breathtaking views.

The day ended in the worst tragedy.

As the cabin was approaching the station on the top of Mottarone, just a few centimeters before it came to a full stop, the gondola started to slide down. Within a few seconds it gained speed up to over 100 km./hour, until it plunged into the ground several hundred meters lower.

As the cabin crashed, all passengers were killed on the spot, except the two five-year-olds, Eitan Biran and Mattia Zorloni.

Both of them were rushed on two helicopters to Ospedale Regina Margherita, a children’s hospital in nearby Turin. Since they did not have any documents on them, they were admitted as “unknown” patients, with no parents by their side.

Mattia was in critical condition, and he was sedated. He succumbed to his injuries a few hours later.

Eitan was rushed into surgery. In the accident, he had sustained head and thoracic traumas and had multiple fractures in his legs.

“I’m scared, leave me alone,” he told the doctors before he was also sedated.

As the names of the tragedy’s victims began to circulate and the whole of Italy anxiously followed the developments about a possible survivor of the crash, Eitan’s aunt Aya started to receive condolence messages from friends.

“At the fourth message, I started to think that another rocket had hit Israel,” she said according to Italian media – the last round of the Gaza war had just ended. “I tried to call my brother, and he did not answer. Then I tried to call my sister-in-law, and she also did not answer.”

Eventually, she received an official communication from the Italian authorities and rushed to Turin.

AYA, 41, had been living in Italy, in a village near Pavia, for 17 years. Married to Or Nirko and mother of two daughters, she is a doctor in the local prison.

In those first dramatic moments, she and her husband were at the hospital with Eitan and promised to take care of him also in the future.

“He will grow with us,” Aya said, as reported in the Italian media the day after the incident. The Italian judicial authority in the meantime assigned her temporary custody of Eitan.

 AYA BIRAN, the paternal aunt of Eitan Biran speaks outside the Tel Aviv court yesterday. (credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS) AYA BIRAN, the paternal aunt of Eitan Biran speaks outside the Tel Aviv court yesterday. (credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

As quickly as possible, Tal’s family members – among them her divorced parents Shmuel Peleg and Etty Cohen, and her sister Gali Peleg – also arrived in Italy.

Everyone was shattered by grief. Only one other feeling emerged: the need to support little Eitan, the sole miraculous survivor, the only ray of hope in the abyssal pain.

He was hospitalized in intensive care; from the beginning the medical reports appeared encouraging, but doctors were very cautious: the child was still fighting for his life and there was no certainty that he would not suffer from severe permanent consequences.

Meantime, the victims were brought to Israel to be buried.

A letter by Aya read at the funerals depicted an idyllic shared life between their two families:  

“My Amit, my little brother, my beloved Tal-Tal and Tomi-Tom. I have no words to describe how much we will miss you,” she wrote. “When you joined us in Pavia, Eitan was only one month old, my girls were two and 18 months old. For the first time in years, we had family in Italy. We shared the growth of the children, we nursed them together, we saw the harmony between two brothers develop. We knew we would always be there for each other.”

“These have been years of day trips with strollers, of T-shirts stained with ice cream, playing in the children center of the parish of Borgo Ticino, of afternoons spent in the small swimming pool in the garden,” she added. “These are the images of our moments together, among questions, studies, work, our holidays and Sabbaths together.”

Eitan continued to improve, he woke up, started eating, and was informed of the death of his parents and brother. By that point, the two sides of the family, the Birans and the Pelegs, still appeared to be a united front, at least before the media and the public eye.

Based on the results of the preliminary investigations, three suspects were arrested for causing the accident by tampering with the emergency braking system to hide a malfunction; they were then released from jail. Members of both sides expressed their disappointment.

In the meantime, in Italy and Israel, crowdfunding campaigns to support Eitan were launched; in Italy by local Jewish organizations, in Israel by the Peleg family themselves, who asked for support in order to remain close to Eitan, with Shmuel temporary moving there so that he could see the child regularly.

As the relationship between the paternal and the maternal families soured, all of the relatives have been vowing that money is not an issue that interests them, and that all they care about is Eitan’s well-being and future, though suggesting that this is not the case with the other side.

However, Italian and Israeli media have been quick to point out that without even considering the crowdfunding campaigns, Eitan’s custody will likely turn out to be worth millions of euros once the insurance company, as well as any entity deemed responsible for the crash, will pay the child very high compensations due to the incident.

LAST MONTH, the first dramatic public showdown occurred.

During a press conference, Gali Peleg accused the Birans of keeping Eitan “hostage” in Italy and announced that she was seeking to adopt him through an Israeli court.

In public interviews and remarks, the Pelegs said that Amit and Tal were planning on moving back to Israel and that they wanted their children to grow up in Israel. 

They said that Aya obtained Eitan’s custody by taking advantage of her familiarity with the Italian language and legal system, while the Pelegs were still overwhelmed by the situation and were kept away from the boy and prevented from talking to his doctors to understand more about his medical conditions.

They claimed that Aya and her family did not have a close relationship with Amit’s, despite the fact that they lived so close, that the Birans treated Tal poorly because the Pelegs are Sephardi and not Ashkenazi. They also maintained that if Eitan were to remain in Italy, he would not receive a Jewish education, accusing Aya and her husband of disregarding their Jewish identity, and expressing outrage at the choice of sending Eitan to a Catholic school.

For their part, Aya and Or Nirko expressed bewilderment at the accusations, stressing that Eitan never lived in Israel, and that Amit and Tal themselves had chosen to send the child to the school – the same attended by their daughters and considered one of the best in the city – as the Pelegs knew well since according to Aya they helped the young couple to pay for tuition.

Then in the most unexpected development, on September 11, Shmuel Peleg picked up Eitan to spend the day with him – as decided by the Italian judge who assigned custody to Aya.

It later emerged that the boy had been brought to Israel on a private flight through Switzerland, in spite of the fact that the Italian authorities had ordered that he could leave the country only with the authorization of his guardian.

The Italian authorities opened an investigation for kidnapping. The Pelegs claimed that they just brought Eitan home, where he wanted to be.

The Birans also petitioned an Israeli court to have Eitan immediately returned to them; the Israeli police questioned Peleg and issued a five-day restrictive measure against him, which expired last week.

They said that in the past Peleg had been sentenced for domestic abuse against Etty before they divorced and accused him and the rest of the Peleg family of brainwashing Eitan.  

The case also has been followed closely by both the Italian and the Israeli foreign ministries.

Meanwhile, the story sparked a media storm both on news outlets and social media, with columnists and users taking the side of one or the other family – especially in Italy where Peleg’s action often has been described as religious extremism, or with innuendos made about his past as an “Israeli soldier.”

On Thursday, a first hearing was held in a court in Tel Aviv. Aya flew in to attend. The hearing was held behind closed doors. It was decided that Eitan will remain in Israel for another two weeks, during which temporary arrangements will be made so that both families can see the child and access his medical reports. A new hearing will be held on October 8.

What does Eitan really want? And where will he live and grow? Definite answers to these questions might take a long time and a battle in the courts of two countries.

In the meantime, in the next few days it will be at least decided where, and when, he will be able to start first grade.

A larger question, however, will likely remain.

What will he think when he is a little older, and he reads not only about the unspeakable tragedy of his parents and brother’s death, but also all the vicissitudes his custody sparked, the accusations, the resentment and the rage?

As he was battling for his life, two families, communities and countries were rooting for him. The hope is that no matter where Eitan will be raised, the love of those who surround him will be able to provide him with the support that he needs.