Bridge Over Troubled Waters: 1997 and 2005

Simon Trainor
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Simon Trainor

When Australian Kate Pearlstein, bronze medallist in this year's Maccabiah women's basketball, recalls the 1997 Games, she remembers the bodies of her teammates being carried out of the murky waters of the Yarkon River.

At the time Pearlstein was 15 years of age, from Melbourne, Victoria, and competing in junior netball.

The opening ceremony of the 15th Maccabiah games in 1997 began with a march of the athletes across a bridge leading to Israel's Ramat Gan Stadium. As the Australian delegation was half way across, the bridge collapsed, sending many of the athletes on the structure into the Yarkon. The water, contaminated with poisonous insecticides, led to the deaths of five members of the Australian team.

This was your first time back since the 1997 disaster. What made you decide to return?

I was always going to come back, and I was going to come back four years ago as a netballer, a senior netballer. I was actually going to captain that team. In the end, we didn't end up coming, because it was really dangerous in Israel at the time, and this was just the next time to come back.

What do you remember about the 1997 bridge collapse?

I remember a lot. I'm scared of heights, so I remember having to walk on this bridge and when your foot hit these boards it made a hollow, sort of dodgy sound.

It was a really steep bridge so we actually had to walk up quite an incline and being scared of heights I didn't really want to do it anyway. As the netball team we were walking close to the front. As we were walking up I decided to stop and turn around and take a photo of the rest of the team walking up onto the bridge. As soon as I turned around after taking my photo, the rest of my team were two meters ahead of me and they were probably at the peak of the bridge. We just heard this crack and it just collapsed.

I still had my camera, I don't remember how I still had it but I did. I don't remember a hell of a lot. There are sections that I just don't remember. The main question everyone asks is, "Did you go into the water?" The answer is no. I remember falling.

I was sort of at the bottom of this steep hill and I attempted to run up it with boards sort of breaking.

Then it started moving away from the bank. I jumped a couple of meters onto the bank The rugby boys were on the bank they weren't actually on the bridge, and they spoke to me after. After that I was just sitting there staring at what's going on, not thinking it was actually happening. And your just watching all these people being pulled out of the water. We saw a few of them [being pulled out of the water] and actually later found out that they died.

[When the Games began following the tragedy] every team, every country, were given the opportunity to not play if they didn't want to. In my mind it was no question. We had two players [injured], one had a broken wrist one had a `broken leg. Our manager and our coach were also injured and the rest just had bruises and stuff. Our team was much smaller than it was originally and we just enjoyed ourselves, it was hard to enjoy ourselves, but it was good in the end.

Did you yourself get injured?

I hurt my ankle, just rolled or something. I actually injured it quite badly just before I left, so that just flared that up. I had bruised legs all the way down pretty much. I was ridiculously lucky.

What was it like to finally enter Ramat Gan Stadium this year?

It was really exciting because when I came in 1997 I had been told that the best thing was to walk into that stadium. I was a bit nervous about walking in, but I was more excited. I don't know, I was just excited to see it.

In the first section on the right; we had all these Australian supporters wearing green t-shirts. It was amazing. You just felt like an Olympian. You felt so special. But really we're not all such good athletes. I thought I?d be a lot more nervous than I was. They arranged it so you didn't walk over the bridge and into the stadium, we just waited four hours and then walked in.

Earlier in the week there was the unveiling of a memorial, and Yizkor [the memorial prayer] was said at the opening ceremony, in recognition of the five victims of the bridge collapse.

Do you think organizers have done enough to accommodate the Australian team and make them feel comfortable about their decision to return?

I think they've done all that they can. Listening to the speeches at the memorial service and actually have the stones and what they've got there, they had to do it and they did it and the speeches were really good. And they made us feel, as welcome as they can but still, it was just something that was so preventable its ridiculous.They did what they had to do and they did it well. But it is what they should have done 8 years ago that they should have done back then.

Is there a little bit of animosity?

Yeah, and it will always be there.

1997 was your first time at the Maccabiah. You played netball, did you end up competing?

Yeah I was 15. We played and we won gold. But this year in the netball competition the Australian's are pretty much the best team there. We competed and we won with minimal team effort. They weren't such good competition but we got a gold medal anyway.

What made you choose basketball this time around?

When I got back from '97 I played netball for another couple of years and it was probably four years later that I swapped over to basketball. So since I stopped playing netball I haven't touched a netball. And this is the first time we had basketball. I would have played netball if they didn't have basketball. That's my main sport now.

Have you always been a sports woman?

Hell yeah!

What are your greatest sporting achievements?

There are two things. The first thing is probably winning gold at Maccabiah not because of the competition but because of all the other things that we had to deal with at the time. I remember at a junior carnival when I was about 12, they give out the Nathan Hoffbauer award, which is Jill Hoffbauer's brother. He died when he was very young. He was a great sportsman. And they offer that to the person who they think is sporty, and also a team player. They give it out to a Victorian and I was a Victorian for that year. It's not a sporting thing but it?s associated with sport. I think that's the most important thing about sport.



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