A day of close calls in Ashkelon

"It was a miracle that saved us."

"God didn't forget about me," said Haya Abergel, 34, as she huddled on a cushioned chair in the hallway outside her Ashkelon apartment, hours after a Grad missile sailed over the city at 8:45 a.m. Monday and nose-dived into the roof of her seven-story building. A survivor of the attack, Abergel pulled her brown jacket tighter around her shoulders as she pondered the question, "What if it had hit only a few meters to the right?" She left the sentence unanswered as she glanced at her neighbors' brown doorway, behind which the missile had created a hole in the living room ceiling. "They weren't home," she said of her neighbors. Out of the three families that live on the seventh floor, only she and her seven-year-old son were in their apartment. "It was a miracle that saved us," she said. She was not the only lucky one. The missile that hit Abergel's building narrowly missed the small day care center across the street and a nearby elementary school. That missile, along with one that fell in a park Monday morning, sent 36 residents to Barzilai Medical Center, of which 32 were treated for trauma and the other four for light injuries. Only one was hospitalized overnight. When the warning sirens rang out, many of the city's 26,000 pupils scrambled to hide under their desks, since the structures they study in are largely unprotected from the 14 missiles which have fallen there since last Tuesday. Panicked by missiles, some 10 percent of the city's parents arrived at schools throughout the city to take their children home, according to city spokeswoman Anat Weinstein-Berkovits. In one school, 60% of the pupils went home, she added. Many of the public structures in the city, including the hospital, are unprotected as well, said Alan Marcus, Ashkelon's director of strategic planning. Only 50% of city apartments and homes have protected rooms, he added. But the time between the Color Red warning siren - which is only now being activated in the city - and impact is only 15 seconds, Marcus said. So there is little people can do; the best antidote is to stop the missiles from falling, he added. For days now, city officials have held emergency meetings twice a day to improve services and to minimize the missile impact, which is most destructive to the older buildings in the city. Abergel was lucky both because her building is new, which limited missile damage to her neighbor's apartment and because she, as well as the other 24 families that live in the building, has a safe room. When she heard the siren, Abergel said, she ran to that room where her son was lying in bed because he was home sick from school. These days, she said, the whole family sleeps there for security. She held him to protect him and together they counted to 10, Abergel recalled. "You see, it passed," he told her, pleased when it was over. But she had the opposite reaction. Abergel had noted that the building had trembled. She was certain, based on the loud noises, that he it had actually been hit. Immediately, she called her husband, a police officer who was at a meeting in Jerusalem, and told him to come home. Within minutes, she said, ambulances and firefighters arrived. Standing by her mother in the cramped hallway, 12-year-old Liron said that the siren rang out in the middle of her math class and she and all the other pupils immediately dove under their desks. After the explosion she called her mother. "She [her mother] was crying," said Liron; she managed to understand, amidst the sobs, that their apartment building had been struck. "I cried, I wanted to go home," said Liron, whose uncle soon came to get her. As she approached the building she saw it was blocked off with tape. "At first they didn't let me in, but then my mother and my brother came out," she said. "We got into an ambulance to go to the hospital," said Liron. But a second warning siren caused them to get out of the vehicle and seek shelter in a nearby building. Instead of proceeding to the hospital, they headed home to survey the damage and speak with their neighbors, for whom the missile was the only topic of conversation in the building. Abergel's neighbor on the seventh floor, Michal Doanis, whose apartment was also spared the brunt of the missile attack, was at work when the missile hit. Luckily, she said, neither her husband or her three children were in the apartment. At night, she said, she planned to send her children to sleep in Ashdod, but she wanted to stay at home. Abergel said she didn't want to leave anything to chance. As she sat with feet tucked underneath her, wearing furry slippers, she said the whole family was heading to her mother-in-law's for a few days. A native of Ashkelon, she said she wasn't even considering the question of leaving the city, but she added that this didn't mean that she felt safe staying there either. "We'll go for a few days, then we will see," she said. Ashkelon, she explained, is not like Sderot where there are many open spaces. It is a more densely populated city, so that most missiles that strike here are likely to cause harm. A few floors down, Ludmila Kopp, a Ukrainian immigrant, said she and her family planned to stay put, but they would sleep in the living room, which she believed was safer then their protected room. "How are we going to fit?" asked her seven-year-old daughter, Natalie. "It will work," Kopp reassured her. The older daughter, Tanya, 13, said that at first she had been scared when she called home while still hiding under her desk and heard that the missile had struck their apartment building. But she was reassured to return to find that everything looked the same. Across the street from the apartment, the park gate by a small day care center for children ages one to four was locked. Earlier in the day, many of the parents arrived almost immediately after the missile to take their children home. A few Ashkelon parents called for the children to be kept home on Tuesday. But at day's end, the head of the Ashkelon Parents Association, Inon Gibly, had instructed parents to send their children to school as usual on Tuesday. Full protection would take years and was not feasible, he said. It was better to ask for immediate measures to improve the situation, such as arranging for IDF teachers as well as soldiers and psychologists to be present in the buildings to help give the pupils confidence. "We want people to know that we here in Ashkelon are strong and we are not going anywhere," he said.