10th anniversary of Maccabiah tragedy marked in Ramat Gan

The footbridge over the Yarkon River that the teams were meant to cross to march into the stadium had collapsed.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Ten years ago, Phillip Foxman of Sydney was sitting with thousands of others in Ramat Gan's National Stadium, waiting for the teams participating in the 15th Maccabiah to march by in the games' opening ceremony. "We were all hyped up," he recalled on Friday. "The Argentines came in and no one came after them... Then our phones started ringing and we were in shock." The footbridge over the Yarkon River that the teams were meant to cross to march into the stadium had collapsed. Most of the Australian team was thrown into the highly polluted water. Four of them died and 60 were injured. The dead comprised a 10-pin bowler, a lawns bowler, a bridge player and a team manager. On Saturday, services marking the 10th anniversary of the tragedy that took the lives of Yetty Bennett, Greg Small, Elizabeth Sawicki and Warren Zines were held in synagogues in Melbourne and Sydney. Foxman, who heads the Clean Up Israel environmental project, had intended to attend services in Sydney's Central Synagogue. Due to a change in his plans, however, he found himself in Israel. He called a cousin who is a member of the Maccabi Australia leadership and asked if he knew anything about a memorial service in Israel. The cousin replied that a special memorial session of the Maccabi World Union executive was scheduled for Sunday. That wasn't good enough for Foxman. He felt that something ought to be done at the site of the tragedy. Two years ago, in conjunction with the 17th Maccabiah, a memorial bridge was dedicated, together with an engraved headstone on an island of grass situated between the bridge and the entrance to the stadium. Foxman contacted Australian Ambassador James Larsen, Frank Stein, director of the Zionist Federation of Australia Israel office, and Paul Israel, director of the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce. They immediately agreed to pool their resources. Within days, they had organized a memorial ceremony. The trauma that came out of the Maccabiah Bridge disaster also had some positive aspects, Foxman said. Most Israelis whom he met were ashamed and somehow felt responsible. The Israeli government provided loans for the victims until they received their compensation, a special Knesset committee was appointed to investigate the cause of the tragedy, safety laws were revamped, and the families of the deceased were invited back two years ago and given the red carpet treatment at the 17th Maccabiah. "Till 1997," said Paul Israel, "when one mentioned Maccabiah, one would talk of the experience in glowing terms. Normally, the opening ceremony is an emotional, positive experience for everyone." On July 14, 1997, the emotional experience was not positive, he said, and to this day "there are people who carry physical, psychological and emotional scars." Stein criticized "the lack of decency and honesty and acceptance of responsibility" on the part of those who were guilty of negligence in the contracting, supervision and construction of the bridge. He was full of praise for the "numbers of good and decent people in Israel and Australia who rose to the challenge and assisted in myriad ways." Today, the Yarkon River is much cleaner, and Australian teams can once again look forward to participation in the Maccabiah Games, said Larsen. Lynne Zines, the widow of Warren Zines, sent a message in which she mentioned the "significant hardship and enormous loss of privacy" that she and her family had endured during the drawn-out legal process, and underscored the support of the Zionist Federation of Australia. Two years ago, she and members of her family came to Israel for the 17th Maccabiah Games, with very heavy hearts, thinking how much Warren Zines would have wanted to be there. While the bridge-dedication ceremony was emotional, the highlight of the trip was the opening ceremony; they led the teams into the stadium. "It was an overwhelming experience and one we will never forget. The trip brought us as close to any kind of closure we would experience. Our love for Israel remains very strong," she said. Memorial prayers were recited by Rabbi Carlos Tapiero, deputy director-general of the Maccabi World Union, and several wreaths were laid. Those laid by Larsen, Stein and Gurion Meltzer on behalf of the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce were in the Australian national colors of yellow and green.