Tale of a survivor
Suzanne Small, whose husband Greg was killed in the 1997 Maccabiah bridge disaster, talks about the severe emotional and physical trauma she has dealt with since that horrific night.
Suzanne Small recalls in astonishing detail the night of July 14, 1997. During the opening ceremony of the 15th Maccabiah Games, she was standing at the apex of the bridge leading to Ramat Gan Stadium, alongside her husband Greg, when the structure suddenly gave way. Suzanne had just swapped places with Greg, as they knew that a video camera would be filming them; he said that she should be the one to wave to their children, aged five and seven, back home in Australia.
When the bridge collapsed, Suzanne was plunged deep into the Yarkon River. She recalls people on top of her, gulping in water and thinking for certain that she would die. Her main thought: Greg will have to look after the children alone. Only when a soldier pulled her out of the water, and she caught sight of her husband his face swollen and blue did she realize she had made it and he hadn't.
Small, who speaks calmly and articulately about the trauma she has lived with for the last eight years, is returning to Israel to attend the 17th Maccabiah Games. Along with her children and members of two of the three other families who suffered losses in the disaster, she has accepted the invitation of the Maccabi World Union (MWU) to be present at the games and to attend a memorial service for the victims on the banks of the Yarkon River.
In June, under pressure from the Australian team, MWU's Yoram Eyal, chairman of the organizing committee of the 15th Maccabiah and manager of the Maccabiah village in Ramat Gan, announced he would not be present in the presidential box, which athletes salute during the opening ceremony march.
Eyal was convicted of negligence leading to the bridge collapse and performed six months' community service, although he has been reinstated as a member of the MWU executive and was also promoted to head the body's North America desk. Four other men, who were subcontractors to MWU, including the bridge engineer and the contractors who built it, served time in prison for their role in the disaster.
"All I could think of was the children," says Small, recalling the 24 hours she spent in hospital after the bridge collapse and the long journey back to Sydney. "I was in complete shock and all I could think about was how to tell my two young children. I arrived home and went straight to my husband's funeral."
During the incident, Small's ankle was broken in five places, she suffered a swelling around the heart and dislocated her left shoulder. But the emotional scars were the most enduring. "I was a complete mess for a couple of years. I missed years of my children's childhood. I went to jelly. I was on a heavy dosage of anti-depressants, sleeping pills and pills for panic attacks. I was just a zombie. I couldn't cope. When I went for counseling, they asked if I'd ever thought of suicide. Everything goes through your head, but at the end of the day, I'd always think of my children."
Joshua is now 15 and Rebecca is 13. Small describes them as supportive, loving and respectful. "I'm so blessed. They could have been very angry children, but I spoke to them a lot. I didn't cover up what happened."
She says they have sustained her throughout. "The mental anguish the drowning, night after night, seeing my husband's face, waking up gagging for years it's hard to fight. The nightmares were unbelievable. I couldn't drive near the airport in Sydney because the smell of the airport fumes reminded of the taste of the Yarkon River water and would bring on an anxiety or panic attack."
Though she is still on medication, Small says she has passed the "heavy stage." She attributes much of this to the "team" of people around her her friends and family and has learned to cope by "putting on a brave face." She still suffers from migraines, has a chronic spine problem, which means she cannot stand for more than 10 minutes at a time, and has to wear a splint at night. She dislocated her jaw from clenching her teeth, "trying to fight back emotions." She recently broke her foot simply walking where there was weakness resulting from the original fractures.
"When your body is under stress, it gives way," she explains. "But I keep on going, I won't give in. I'm very stubborn and strong-willed. I've had to be to have survived. I can't walk around every day telling the children that the world is terrible. I have to be positive for them. I told them from day one that there are specific individuals to blame for what happened. It's not Israel's fault or Maccabi's fault and we must stay focused on who is to blame."
Kaddish for DaddyBefore the bridge collapse, Small recalls that she and her husband had the most wonderful holiday in Israel. "It was like a second honeymoon. It was Greg's ultimate dream to go to Israel; to be at the Maccabiah was a bonus."
Her husband was the No. 1 Jewish Australian tenpin bowler at the time and was part of the men's bowling team, while she was their section manager. "My husband was my best friend. I met him when I was 16 so we were childhood sweethearts and I was 35 when he died. We went on this mission together. I called the kids three times a day. It was the first time I had left them. I've never left them again."
As for her children accompanying her to Israel, she says, "I think they need a lot of answers. They need to see where the bridge was how high it was, its location. They need to touch, to see, to understand more. Josh told me: 'I need to go and say Kaddish where Daddy died.' Rebecca said to me that she wanted to go and see things that Daddy saw before he died. She doesn't remember much about Greg, which is like another knife through my heart."
Small says she feels ready to make the trip. She is anxious about the memorial service "because it's at the site."
She is critical, however, of the Maccabi World Union. "I don't think anything I do is going to make a difference. I think Maccabi World Union is a boys' club. Yoram Eyal has been given back his top job, which is completely disrespectful to the four families and everyone involved. Until he leaves, my son [also a tenpin bowler] will never participate in the Maccabiah. Someone that was found guilty shouldn't get back their old life it's not right."
'I've forgiven everyone'The last time Mark Bennett spoke to his mother, Yetty, was on the telephone just before the opening ceremony of the 15th Maccabiah Games. "She was really excited and looking forward to it," he recalls.
Yetty Bennett, who was 50, was the manager of the Australian bowls team at the games. She was standing on the bridge leading to the Ramat Gan Stadium when it collapsed and she fell in to the river below and drowned.
"Mum never got to the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah when she was there, so I thought it would be nice to complete that," says Bennett, explaining why he approached the president of Maccabi Australia to ask how he could get to the 17th Maccabiah Games. "Getting to the opening ceremony feels like something I have to do a bit more closure. I'm sure she'll be watching."
Since losing his mother, Mark, 33, has married and become the father of 1-year-old Jordan and 3-year-old Dean. "When my oldest son looks at a photo of my mum and asks who it is, it puts a lump in my throat."
Mark will travel to Israel with his brother Jeff, 30, and his sister Ilana, 22. The three lost their father three years before their mother died. It will be Mark's third trip to Israel since the bridge disaster. "The first time I went there [in February 1998 to find a lawyer], I said I'd never go back. The second time I went [in April 2000, during his honeymoon], I said I'd never go back. Now I'm going back.
"I think back then I was just angry in general. The people of Israel have been really good to us. The public was really compassionate and still is to this day. I really don't have a problem with Israel outside of what happened."
With respect to the Maccabi World Union, Mark says he has mixed emotions. "There are people in Maccabi World Union who have been very helpful and compassionate to us like those who have helped us get there this year. I know that some of those who were convicted are still involved. But I'm really over all that now. I'm not angry with anyone anymore. I've forgiven everyone. It makes my life much easier. [Yoram Eyal's continued involvement] is a bit of an insult I guess, but day to day, it doesn't affect me. I'm not going to look for a fight and I don't want to make this trip any unhappier than it's going to be anyway."
Bennett and his siblings were involved in a lengthy battle to receive compensation following the disaster. "By the end, we didn't even care how much it was, we were all just happy it finished. At the end of the day, no matter how much you get, it's not going to bring back what you've lost."
'Closer to closure'The six grandchildren that Warren Zines never met will all attend the 17th Maccabiah Games. The eldest, Ari, was born four days after his grandfather plunged into the Yarkon River and ingested its highly polluted water when the temporary bridge above it collapsed.
"When Ari was born, Dad had already lapsed into a coma, so he never knew," says Adam Zines, Ari's uncle. "He is called Ari Eran. Eran was the doctor who looked after my father in hospital. We're hoping to meet up with him in Israel."
The whole Zines clan will be in Israel for this year's games following an invitation from Maccabi World Union: Adam, 38, with his wife and their two young boys; Adam's older sister Shelley, with her husband and their two boys (one is Ari); Adam's younger sister Lisa and her husband, with their two young children; and of course, Warren Zines' widow, Lynne.
Adam and his mother flew out to Israel from Sydney immediately after learning that Warren was injured in the disaster. "We were at his bedside for four weeks. When we arrived, he was actually conscious and he knew we were there," recalls Adam. "We had conversations and were joking around with him. He was even transferred out of intensive care, but then he was moved back. The doctors told us they had to put him into an induced coma to give them the opportunity to stabilize his condition, but that never happened."
Adam explains that his father, a lawn bowls player, did not sustain external physical injuries when the bridge collapsed; rather, it was the toxic waters of the Yarkon River that killed him. He was 55.
Adam is anxious to visit the site where his father died. "It will take us that extra step closer to closure. It's not going to be an easy trip. It will be very emotional."
The Maccabi World Union, he says, failed on all accounts with respect to the handling of the situation after the disaster. "While in some respects they tried, it either came too late or was totally inappropriate. I don't think they ever put their hand up and took real responsibility for what happened particularly in the way they dealt with various members of their board.
"But, notwithstanding, we'll move on. I do not hold any anger against them. It's been a release for me to say that I can forgive them and the fact that they failed in their responsibilities is for them to deal with. I don't want to carry the ill effects of holding on to that anger within my own spirit. I want to put positive energy into my children and their education and well-being and into my wife and the rest of my family."