Consumed by fire

A fire in Eilat destroys decade's worth of marine research, including some of a top-secret nature, leaving scientists devastated and scrambling to salvage what remains.

fire eilat 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy NCM)
fire eilat 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy NCM)
A fire at the National Center for Mariculture (NCM) - part of the Israel Oceanographic & Limnological Research (IOLR) complex in Eilat a few weeks ago razed marine research laboratories and left its scientists devastated. The November 14 blaze resulted in the loss of 20 years' worth of research as fish and other precious marine life boiled in their tanks. Today, as scientists from the institute try to recoup their losses and put the pieces back together, the desperate need for funding at Eilat's two main Red Sea research centers has been illuminated. These two centers - the NCM and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat (IUI) - are carrying out work with important implications for Israel's future: in nature conservation, marine biotechnology aquaculture and for understanding processes such as climate change. Beverly Goodman, a coastal geologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who works at the IUI in Eilat, tells her side of the story: It was a Wednesday night and she and her colleagues from the IUI were sitting in a restaurant in Eilat enjoying the panoramic view. They were celebrating the completion of a marine course when they received the call. One of their dive officers, Oded Ben-Shafrut, who is also a volunteer for Magen David Adom in Eilat, had heard on his emergency radio that there was a fire at the Eilat-based marine research center, the NCM. They looked out the window of the restaurant and to their shock, could see the blaze consuming the institute. IUI director Dan Tschernov, who was present that night, began frantically calling his colleagues. "Is everyone okay, what can we do to help save things?" he asked. Although the two are separate research stations - and competitors at times - researchers at both centers have maintained supportive and friendly relationships over recent years and they also collaborate on joint scientific projects now and again. Goodman recalls, "We went to see if anything could be done, but we could only give moral support and stood watching them fight the fire. It was an inferno. The one building that housed the cafeteria looked okay, but the whole central area was in flames and nobody could go to the south side [of the research center]. People were just hysterical. Someone overheard one of the firefighters saying that the fish were jumping out of their tanks." For the marine biologists who had cultivated their experiments over decades, the ordeal was more than a nightmare. Says Goodman, "Imagine, your babies are getting boiled and there is nothing you could do. Everyone was in shock." When the smoke cleared, both equipment and years of ongoing experiments had been lost - some of it top-secret government research. Goodman estimates that about five of the six labs at the NCM were destroyed. In order to help, the IUI did what came naturally to them: they invited researchers working at the devastated center to bring any remaining material to the IUI down the street. Arik Diamant, who heads the NCM in Eilat (are two other institutes, in Haifa and near the Kinneret), was still in mourning when Metro called earlier this week. Apparently, the loss of research plus the unwanted negative press reports has added to the stresses of rebuilding. "We have had a policy since the fire not to talk with the media or reporters - we are apprehensive and don't want to bad-mouth anybody. If there [was] negligence, then it has to be investigated," says Diamant. "We don't mean to raise any irrelevant issues and want to stress that we want to go back to work and pick up the contracts that we have with the EU and with US research groups, and also our regional projects with Jordan and Egypt. All these things need to continue." The fire, "it was devastating. There was so much damage and we had problems before the fire. Now we are trying to put the pieces together." Could the fire, started by an overheating electric device on the institute's wooden floor, have been prevented? Goodman, works in fundraising and development for the IUI while she continues her research, explains that building safety has been a widespread concern for both marine centers in Eilat. She says, "These buildings were constructed about 20 or 30 years ago - and were built in haste. They were built as quickly and as cheaply as they could be." Goodman, who is from Ontario, Canada, recognizes this haphazard building mentality as a general, widespread problem in Israel. "In Israel the attitude is, build when you can, as quick as you can, with what you have. Corners get cut or the building materials at the time are... well, what they are." Goodman recognizes that at the center where she works the buildings are getting old and some lack proper permits. "As we are growing and trying to expand in order to build something impressive, we have to renew these building issues. It is bad. It is just not quite up to code - and there is a lot of old equipment. This is true for both institutes." But poor building standards matched with faulty lab equipment aren't the only factors to bear blame for the blaze. One rumor circulating among the researchers in Eilat is that the firefighters didn't respond to the fire with the readiness that they should have. Some also suspect that the fire department in Eilat had not fulfilled the necessary and routine inspections on both centers' safety equipment. "It seems that the fire department [wasn't] doing [its] job," said a researcher from one of the institutes, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There was a lack of preparedness. The rumor is that it took five hours to get the fire out. It shouldn't have taken that long. There weren't dangerous chemicals there, except for the asbestos. I would argue that there was incompetency in the fire department. Those who were at the fire location didn't see the fire department use any water. They said that the hoses weren't attached to anything that could give water. The fire department also said that the city wasn't supplying water," says the source, warning, "I don't want to scare people who are staying in hotels in Eilat, but unlike the limited access to hotels rooms, there was access on all four sides of the NCM building. I can't imagine what would happen if there is a major fire in a hotel here." This source wanted it to be noted that, "The buildings need to be invested in. Here in Israel, we are lucky that we have the brain strength and the know-how. But the intellect means nothing if we don't take care of our buildings. In Israel the old attitude prevails, 'It is easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.'" Dan Harari, manager of the Eilat-Eilot Municipalities Fire Department, did not ask for forgiveness, but responded to the rumors. "This [fire] was not the problem of the fire department - it was the problem of the place. The electricity was cut from the fire and they didn't have electricity going to supply the water pump," he tells Metro, adding that the water carried by the fire trucks is depleted within three short minutes. When the firefighters first arrived on the scene, they found fire on the first floor of the main building. But it would later leak to the second. "We know it was an electrical fire caused by equipment used for drying material in the lab. [The equipment] was standing on the floor, which was made from wood. Because these tools stood on the floor and the floor was made from wood, the machine heated the wood over a period of many months. Eventually the heat [sparked] the fire," says Harari. As for the local rumors and allegations of the fire department not inspecting sites thoroughly: "It is not true," says Harari. "We check everything and we know what there is to do. The problem was that the cables to the generator burned. There was no back-up solution." The fire department based in Eilat sees about 1,200 fire-related "events" per year, says Harari. "We are dealing with an area reaching 100 km. north of Eilat. That includes car crashes on the Arava Road, hazardous materials in the port, and also, we have a lot of fires in the hotels." Diamant of NCM replied: "As far as extinguishing fires, well we don't know much about that. What we know is what we are instructed. We do what the law requires us to do for laboratory security: checking the extinguishers, getting permits. We recently installed a circular pipe. All was done according to the specifications of the fire department. "As far as we know," continues Diamant, "we did everything possible and the system worked well in notifying the fire department - by our guard and also through our automated detection systems. I don't know why they fought the fire for five hours. I doubt this has to do with us. As far as I was told, the firemen instructed the electricity company to turn the power off. Our electric current was cut off and that would explain why the pumps were cut off too. You would think they would have come equipped with a generator. "I have no idea what could have been done better or how we could have prepared ourselves better. In the future, we should have fire hydrants connected to our seawater system. Through our people that work in the lab - they have told us that the several instruments we have in that room were switched off. There was also a freezer and a fridge. We think it was a short-circuit in [one of those]." Meanwhile, Dan Tschernov from the IUI, who proposed his center absorb the NCM's remaining research, is not interested in accolades or thanks for his gesture. "We are all good friends here on a personal level," says Tschernov. "I figured look, we will get our institute to help them as much as we can - it is something sensible and practical to do. We are one country and one city. During the fire, we saw the molecular biology group were losing their labs one by one. I could see that the fire had skipped over their minus-70-degree centigrade refrigerators that contains all of their genetic material. I suggested that we transfer the material to our labs. We could cram ourselves together and they could continue their molecular work." Tschernov, a marine molecular biologist from Hebrew University, believes that losing this material would be a disservice to mankind. "This is not theoretical research - it is about fish - commercial fish and being able to breed them in captivity. There is material on tuna, the DNA of groupers and grey mullets," explains Tschernov, who identifies himself as a coral biologist whose field of research deals with global warming and ocean acidification, as well as the molecular mechanisms that lead to coral death. On this, he collaborates with Prof. Maoz Fine from Bar-Ilan University. Cross-institution collaboration is common at the IUI, as it is a center for all of Israel's universities to converge and do Red Sea marine research at one location. "People always want to validate whether global warming is anthropogenic (man-caused) or if is just a normal course of events where things are naturally occurring. We are in the midst of developing a technique to look at the coral over the last 800,000 years," Tschernov explains. "They have been around for 490 million years. "Almost 16 percent of all coral cover in the world is already dead. It is very important to know whether this is unique and occurring now because we are burning fossil fuels. Science needs the proof." How is Tschernov looking for proof? "We've developed a tool to see if corals have bleached in the past and to see if they have survived." Currently there are 33 research groups, represented by all seven Israeli universities at the IUI. There are about 300 students that study at the center each year and about 40 resident scientists working on graduate projects and who live in Eilat. Most of the researchers are non-resident scientists and fly to Eilat to do experimental work when necessary. Most visitors to the center, which sits not far from the marine park in Eilat, will be greeted by a very friendly divemaster named Daniel Tobias, who is assistant dive safety officer at the IUI. Metro met him a few weeks ago and he offered to comment on the recent fire. Says Tobias, "We've been working with the researchers that had projects in the other center. I think they are rebuilding and haven't started diving in full force, although there have been some dives. They are still recuperating." As for the fire, "I think it is terrible," he says. "I understand that many years of research has gone up in smoke, unfortunately, and we will do what we can." Tobias does everything from instructing students on how to dive (a useful skill for marine researchers) to how one can collect specimens from the Red Sea. The expanse of beach directly in front of the IUI is a living underwater laboratory, in which Tobias dives regularly. "If need be, I also help with other complicated tasks underwater that either require direct supervision or someone more experienced." Underwater work Tobias might help supervise includes positioning concrete blocks for artificial reefs or as anchors for underwater lab benches. "Doing this at depths of 42 meters is harder than you would imagine," says Tobias. For those that have ever envisioned a career in marine biology, as a diver or researcher, the Red Sea in Eilat offers dream-like conditions, says Goodman, who had given Metro a tour of the facilities in November. "Here at the gulf of the Read Sea," Goodman points out, "One can see Saudi Arabia. We dream about doing research projects with scientists who come here from around the globe to become an international center for cooperation." The center could be that one day because the Red Sea offers a unique advantage to other locations: water-table experiments can be done easily because within 20 meters from the water line are suitable sites for conducting experiments on reefs. In other locations researchers might have to boat out to reach their experiments. Also, the region in Eilat is one of the world's premiere locations for deep diving. To top it off, the facilities at the IUI are equipped with wireless communication, rebreathers and Nitrox tanks (essential for long dives). Goodman is a coastal geologist currently working on post-doctoral research at Hebrew University. She has a specialty in underwater archaeology and recently welcomed National Geographic to Israel, when they filmed some of her research on ancient tsunamis: one is believed to have destroyed Caesarea hundreds of years ago, she says. "They were interested in a method that I have been developing - of coring [the sea floor] in deep depths." Part of her work also explores coring the ocean floor to understand climate change. According to Diamant, "The rationale for our existence is to use seawater as a natural resource. We have two resources in Israel which are plentiful - seawater and the scientific mind. When you put these two together one doesn't even need to mention the importance of oceans and the demand for fish. Aquaculture is the only way to close the gap. It makes sense that seawater is the future. This is what the government had in mind 30 years ago when it established our center. Now, we just want to get out of this fire and continue our work. We are supposed to be transferred from the National Infrastructures Ministry to the Agriculture Ministry. We thought we would be harmed by the transfer and now... the fire. After the blaze, the short-term research climate has changed significantly in Eilat, and Goodman sees the positive side of the disaster. "We want to work with the NCM and it would be nice to work together more. There is a bit of competition, but it is only friendly competition over basic resources and finances." She concludes that outside donations are badly needed at the two research centers to improve infrastructure and to put Israel on the map as one of the world's greatest marine research hubs.