Israeli Tourists Mourn Lost Paradise on Sinai Beaches

Sagit Levy went to Sinai's beaches to find a paradise of peace, away from the daily fears of violence-wracked Israel.

She staggered home to the Jewish state on Friday slashed by shrapnel and with her eardrums perforated.

"Until last night it was so great, peaceful and quiet, with beautiful sea and friendly people. It was a dream holiday," said 26-year-old Levy. "In a thunderclap it became a nightmare."

"We were singing, laughing, playing guitar and eating good food with friendly Bedouin nearby," said Shlomi Heffets. "I never thought it would reach me here or, even if it reached Sinai, that it would reach my little tent," he said as he emerged from intensive care in the nearby Israeli resort city of Eilat, shoulder bandaged and clothes spattered with blood.

Dazed Israelis streamed over the border into Eilat from vacations ruined by the attacks, near the end of the week-long Jewish harvest holiday. Sinai was a place where Israelis felt they could breathe a little easier, even if they never dreamed of visiting the few other Arab countries that allow them in, and despite the pro-Palestinian sympathies of most people in Muslim Egypt.

"It was certainly one of the most beautiful places for us. Peaceful and quiet and even close to Israel," said art therapist Efi Cohen, 36, who was blown out of bed by the Taba blast with her husband and three children.

"I'm very disappointed and sad and just glad that the family is safe."

But Israelis thought they would be back in Sinai soon.

"I hope time will be a healer and that we'll come back eventually," said Yonatan Gorni, 27, an enthusiastic snorkeller in Sinai's clear waters who was 15 meters away from one of the blasts.

Rescue workers downbeatRescue workers on Friday discounted the chances of finding additional survivors in the wreckage of the Hilton Hotel in Taba, Sinai, the morning after blasts shattered the building, causing one of its wings to collapse.

Gefan Naty, an Israeli military rescuer, said that finding more survivors was unlikely.

"I don't believe anyone is still alive. We just pulled out one child" who was dead, Naty said. The child appeared to be about 10 years old, he said.

Survivors recalled the horrors of the blast and the bedlam that ensued.

"The gates of Hell suddenly opened," an Israeli doctor, a guest at the shattered Taba Hilton, told Channel 1 television Thursday, shortly after a blast ripped through the hotel, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 100 others.

The Faragon family had just finished eating dinner at the Hilton Hotel when they heard a huge explosion. "We were in the lobby. The children were playing one floor down and then we heard the blast," said Meir, the father.

"Everything filled with smoke and we were unable to see anything because the electricity went out. We started to look for the children hysterically. First we found the two big boys, aged 10 and 14, but our 6-year-old, Amos, was missing."

Israeli rescuers on Friday found an elderly Israeli woman and her granddaughter alive in the ruins of an upper floor of an Egyptian hotel torn apart in a bomb blast but the grandmother died of her wounds, officials said.

Emergency crews heard a cry from the seventh floor where the two women were trapped in a bathroom and rushed to pull them out. The elderly woman died of her wounds as she was being taken down. Her 24-year-old granddaughter survived.

Amos, who was being carried into Israel on his father's arms during the interview, said: "I was playing with an Arab boy. Suddenly there was a big blast, and I couldn't see anything and my brothers disappeared. An Arab man came to me and took me outside. I forgot to ask his name but he is my friend."

All the fire engines in Eilat were sent to the Hilton in Taba on Thursday night, after a blast ripped through the Hilton Hotel in the Sinai resort town of Taba, killing at least 30 people.

Two explosions occurred less than two hours later at the nearby resort towns of Nueiba and Ras Satan, causing many more casualties.

Israeli firemen succeeded in rescuing two trapped blast victims shortly after their arrival at the hotel, and helped to bring the blaze at the site under control.

Dozens of ambulances left Be'er Sheva shortly after the news broke of the Hilton Taba blast, to help carry the wounded to the various hospitals that were put on alert. All the stretchers that could be located in the south of the country were also sent to Eilat.

Police sappers from Eilat were called up immediately and rushed to the scene of the explosion to check whether there were additional bombs left in the hotel. They were joined by the volunteers of the Eilat-Eilot rescue unit with special heavy equipment.

A giant crane from Eilat was brought into the lobby of the hotel to rescue those trapped by the falling roof and stairs.

Close to midnight, Israel flew 150 blood and plasma units to Eilat, accompanied by paramedics from the center of the country, to bolster the forces already at the scene.

The Israel Navy sent ships as did the maritime police, to patrol the border area. Channel 10 TV reported that many guests from the hotel had fled to the sea to escape the fire and possible additional bombs.

Eyewitnesses reported that the Egyptian authorities had had no means to cope with the fire or to contend with the panic and chaos after the explosions. The Israeli rescue teams, on arrival at Taba, took command under the direction of the IDF's Home Front Command, they said.

Sari and Herzl David, of Holon, were on their way south from Israel to the Taba Hilton casino and had just passed through Egyptian passport control when they heard the explosion.

"We were in the border crossing heading in the direction of Taba. When we heard the explosion we began to run in the direction of Israel but the Egyptians aimed their weapons at us and pushed us up against a wall. We were some 50 people. It was terrifying," Sari said.

She said an IDF soldier in the Israeli side of the crossing shouted to them to lay on the ground and eventually told them to get up and run towards Israel.

Ophir Kam, of Eilat, said an Egyptian police officer was stationed in a square near the entrance of the Taba Hilton. Kam said that on Thursday, when he drove in his vehicle up to the hotel entrance, the officer was gone.

David Ziskind said he didn't see any Egyptian ambulances at the hotel and said authorities there were unprepared to deal with the attacks.

"The Egyptians were confused. There were a bunch of teams and soldiers running around wanting to help, but they were helpless," Ziskind said. "The Egyptian forces just sent us from one place to another."

Ilan Bitran, another eyewitness, told Haaretz: "It was apparently a car bomb. The explosion was massive and bits of metal flew everywhere. We saw them in the parking lot. The entire front of the hotel has collapsed," he said.

"We saw only those who were lightly injured," he added. "They were the ones who succeeded in fleeing. It took about half an hour for the rescue teams to arrive from Israel. The Egyptians earlier sent some rescue workers, but they were only a handful. The hotel workers also did their best."

He said he was not hurt because he was in the casino at the time. His wife and son, who were in their room, fled from the emergency exit and were lightly injured.

"People were running out barefoot toward the border crossing and left everything behind," said Bitran.

An unconscious child and a young woman, her arm wrapped in a blood-soaked bandage, were among those carried on stretchers into waiting ambulances for the short ride to Yoseftal Hospital in Eilat.

Other wounded were ferried by helicopter to the larger Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva.

"There was a huge explosion and debris showered down on us," said one woman at the border crossing.

"I heard a huge explosion. The wall near me collapsed and people began to run. There were many casualties... The explosion was outside. When we went out we saw the shops and the internal wall of the hotel had collapsed," the witness, called Yigal, told Army Radio.

"Some people said it was a gas canister explosion and others said it was a terrorist attack. There are a lot of people [lying on the ground]. There is a lot of blood, a lot of screaming," he added.

"The whole front of the hotel has collapsed," he said. "I am standing outside of the hotel, the whole thing is burning and they have nothing to put it out with. There is nothing here."

Sky over Ras Satan 'lit up like day'Egyptian authorities closed the Nueiba-Eilat road, some 10 kilometers south of Taba, and prevented Israelis fleeing Ras Satan and other areas of Sinai to return home to Israel. Only around 1 A.M. did Egyptian authorities begin to allow Israelis to head north back to the Taba border crossing.

According to eyewitness accounts, the explosions at Ras Satan came at 10 P.M.

Ayelet, an Israeli who as staying at the Red Rock camping area in the southern end of Ras Satan, counted two explosions about three minutes apart that shook the area.

"We heard two booms. The entire sky was lit up like day," she said. The blasts were centered about a 10 minute walk from the Red Rock area.

Like other witnesses, Ayelet noted the beach was packed with Israeli tourists. She said some of them who had arrived at the beach in their own vehicles attempted to return north to Israel but Egyptian authorities prevented their passage along the coastal road.

The Israelis were told travel was permitted only to vehicles belonging to the Egyptian security forces.

Ayelet said that at 1 A.M. tourists at Ras Satan received word that buses were to arrive to transport them throughout the night from the beach to the Taba crossing.

Arkia Airlines and Israir announced Friday morning they would increase their flights from Eilat to Tel Aviv to handle the masses of Israelis seeking to return home from holiday in Sinai. The Egged bus company announced it would do the same.