The Bridge Too Far

By Augustine Zycher

Review 22.10
25 July - 7 August 1997

 The bits of pipe, wood and wire that were the remains of the Maccabiah bridge, looked like a model for a play that the designer had discarded as a bad idea. However, in actual fact, the designer did not discard his bad plans and the set builders had no qualms about constructing a mock bridge in place of a real one.

Irgunit, the company that was contracted by the organizing committee of the Maccabiah to build the bridge, had never before built a bridge. Sources in the Israeli theatre scene told the Review, that Irgunit is well known here as a company that constructs sets for the theatre, and stages for indoor and outdoor performances. In no way are they an engineering company, not by definition and not by expertise. "They build the mock-ups and decorations for most of the plays that are staged in Israel. To get them to construct a real bridge is like getting a dentist to build a buildingÓ, said one theatre producer.

Equally shocking is the fact that Ben-Ezra Construction, the firm sub-contracted by Irgunit to actually carry out the construction, had also never built a bridge before.

Photos published of the collapsed bridge showed that it was made of rusty pipes held together by wire. Tamir Rowner, the army engineer who had designed the bridge for the previous Maccabiah Games, and the man considered as Israel's foremost bridge expert, described this year's bridge as "a joke" and added that "even if this bridge was a set on a stage, I would be afraid to stand under it".

 The organizing committee of the Maccabiah Games knew about the Irgunit's limitations since it was common knowledge. Therefore its decision to award them the contract to construct the bridge can only be described as criminal. For its part, the decision of Irgunit to enter into the contract can only be described as arrogant, avaricious and criminal.

 Rowner, the engineer of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), several months ago began to prepare the plan for this Maccabiah, as he had done for the previous one. His bridge was to be constructed from steel and was capable of bearing 650 people at any one time. Rowner stated that a pedestrian bridge in fact has to be stronger that a bridge for vehicles because it may have to bear more weight at any one time.

 At some point the organizing committee of the Maccabiah decided it did not want to pay the price the IDF was asking, approximately $111,200. Instead, the committee entered into an agreement with Irgunit who were prepared to do it for approximately $34,750.

Adam Mishori of Irgunit reportedly kept about $7,700 and turned around and sub-contracted the building company, Ben-Ezra-Carigula who were given the job of building the bridge on a budget of roughly $27,000. The engineer, Dr. Micha Bar-Ilan designed the bridge. He claimed that according to his design the bridge was able to support 250 kg per square metre. This in itself is a contravention of the Israeli standard that states that a pedestrian bridge must be able to bear 500 kg per square metre. Nobody bothered to check whether the bridge complied with the standard. The Dotan committee, one of the investigating committees into the tragedy, found that even if the bridge had been constructed by better builders it still would have collapsed because the design could not even support 250 kg per square metre. Bar-Ilan claims he asked the organisers to post someone near the bridge to make sure no more than 100 people crossed it at any one time. Irgunit denies that any such request was made.

Furthermore, the bridge was built in contravention to Israeli building and planning regulations. Under these regulations, anyone who wants to build an addition to a private house, even to close off a balcony, has to get a permit from the municipality.

The bridge however, was built without a permit.

The mayor of Ramat Gan, Zvi Bar, plays a triple role in the tragedy. The sports stadium is in his territory and he is head of the municipality's planning division which has the authority to approve or reject applications for building permits. However, no request for a permit to build the bridge was ever submitted. Mayor Bar is also a member of the organizing committee of the Maccabiah that hired Irgunit in the first place.

Bar knew that it was forbidden to build a bridge without a permit, and he saw the bridge being built. It was incumbent upon him to have it torn down as an illegal structure, but he did not do so. Nor did he warn his fellow members on the Maccabiah organizing committee. Mayor Bar was also reportedly involved in the decision to continue with the opening ceremony despite the disaster.

It was this chain of irresponsibility that led to what the Australian Ambassador to Israel, Ian Wilcock, described as "this completely avoidable accident" .

 Several different committees of investigation were set up after the disaster. The Deputy Minister of Education Moshe Peled set up a committee headed by Brigadier General (Res.) Yishai Dotan.

The Dotan committee set up a sub-committee made up of leading experts in construction, engineering and architecture in order to examine the technical aspects. The Dotan committee report was presented on 23 July. In addition there is a police investigation and one by the insurance companies. The Dotan Committee report states that the bridge collapsed as an end result of a "chain of negligence" linking all those involved. It specified:

„ Faulty planning and a failure to comply with the Israeli Standards Institute criteria.

 „ Builders who had no experience and no qualifications in bridge building.

 „ Sub-standard materials.

 „ Bad co-ordination between the builders and the planners.

 „ Total absence of supervision and control.

 „ Execution of work totally without plans and instruction.

 „ The use of ready-made materials that were in store without adaptation.

The report rapped the Maccabiah organizing committee over the knuckles for its failure to supervise and for the bad decision-making process. It recommended that the police conduct criminal investigations against the engineer, Irgunit and the builders. But as one legal commentator pointed out, the Dotan committee has no judicial power or status. Furthermore, the fact that the Report did not mention these guilty parties by name, leaves its recommendations as just theoretical statements.

Police investigators have not to date presented their findings, but there are reports that there is enough evidence to warrant the presentations of six indictments against the engineer, Irgunit, the builders and the organising committee for causing death through negligence.

The police feel that the underlying assumption was that the bridge only needed to function for a few hours and therefore everyone involved tried to cut costs. During the police investigation each party tried to lay the blame on the other.

In the summary of the report released by the Dotan committee there was no mention of the culpability of the mayor of Ramat Gan, Zvi Bar, and the municipal engineer. There was just a statement about a difference of opinion amongst the committee members about the municipality's responsibility because the bridge was meant to be a temporary structure.

Ian Wilcock, the Australian Ambassador to Israel, his wife and his staff visited the injured Australians every day in the various hospitals where they were being treated. "If there is going to be such a tragedy, you couldn't have a better place to have it," he said in praise of the excellent medical treatment the injured were receiving. But in this sentence he also summed up an Israeli phenomenon.

 On the one hand there is the dedication, the idealism and the altruism exemplified by the medical staff at the hospital, and by the soldiers, police and firemen who risked injury in the pesticide-laden water, to rescue the Australians trapped under the bridge. On the other, there is the disturbing mentality typified by the Hebrew words: "haltura", "rosh katan", "b'erech", "smoch alei", "ihiye beseder." In a freehand translation these words mean: "near enough is good enough", "cutting corners", "not taking responsibility", "doing things quickly on the cheap" and "rely on me, it'll be OK".

These words and others like them have become common coinage in Hebrew. They have also become common practice in Israeli society and they are becoming more and more prevalent in every walk of Israeli life. In crisis situations, Israelis are excellent at improvising creative solutions. But in daily life, when they combine their improvising skills with a disdain for laws and a lack of respect for other people, the results can be deadly. Yetti Bennett, Gregory Small and the 70 injured Australians were just the latest victims of this Israeli phenomenon.

The Australian team showed both tremendous Aussie fighting spirit and also a generosity of spirit. They were determined not to give up, but to carry on and take part in the Games. They showed their generosity of spirit in accepting the argument that the opening ceremony of the Games had to go on during the disaster in order to avoid panic amongst the assembled crowd. To many outraged Israelis, this was nothing more than ex-post facto rationalisation. They felt that the organizers did not want anything to interrupt their folklore extravaganza. As the Israeli Maariv newspaper correspondent put it: "Not even death can stop us from showing our kitsch."

 Almost two years ago to the day of the bridge collapse, three Israeli teenagers were crushed to death and 60 others were injured at a rock music festival in Arad in southern Israel. They were killed because the organizers showed cynical and criminal negligence in selling too many tickets and not providing safety measures. Only now are police preparing indictments.

And three years ago three Israelis were crushed to death in their cars because a bridge on the highway to Tel Aviv collapsed on them. The investigation showed that the bridge had not been built to withstand the weight put on it. To date, even though the investigating committee found criminal negligence in the construction of the bridge, no indictments have been presented and the engineers continue to work. The head of that investigation is the same man who headed the investigation into the Maccabiah bridge, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Yishai Dotan.

It will be interesting to see if the current investigations lead to prosecutions of those responsible or whether they, like the previous investigations, fade away.

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