On Eve of Maccabiah, Survivors of 1997 Bridge Disaster Still Seething

Two officials held responsible for collapse of bridge at 1997 opening ceremony still working within Maccabi movement.

SYDNEY – Sixteen years after the darkest chapter in Maccabiah history, some of the survivors of the 1997 bridge disaster are seething that officials held responsible for the deaths of four Australians still continue to operate inside the Maccabi movement.

Click here for our special Maccabiah section, including timetable, news and travel tips

Greg Small, Yetty Bennett, Elizabeth Sawicki, and Warren Zines died after a makeshift bridge over the Yarkon River collapsed as the Australian team was making its way into Ramat Gan stadium for the opening ceremony of the 15th Maccabiah in July 1997. More than 70 others were injured.

Five men were found guilty in 2000 of criminal negligence, including Yoram Eyal, the chairman of the organizing committee of the ill-fated Games. He was sentenced to six months’ community service, infuriating many Australian Jews, and was later appointed an executive board member of Maccabi World Union, which organizes the Games. Eyal soon became general manager of the Maccabiah village, the headquarters of MWU and a nerve center of the “Jewish Olympics” – a post he retains to this day.

His colleague, Ronald Bakalarz, then president of the Maccabi World Union, resigned in 2000 following three years of pressure from Australia and an ultimatum by the Knesset inquiry. Today, he is chairman of the board of the Maccabiah village.

Their continued embrace by Maccabi is “disgraceful,” “astounding,” and “inconceivable,” according to Australians contacted by Haaretz this week.

Colin Elterman’s daughter Sasha, then a 15-year-old tennis player from Sydney, miraculously survived 28 brain operations after she ingested toxins from the polluted river.

“It’s disgraceful but hardly surprising,” her father said. “It is entirely consistent with the way these officials snubbed Diaspora Jewry and put us to enormous effort to achieve some modicum of justice.

“From our experience there is nothing that the organization will not do to protect its insiders. Sadly it’s endemic in their system.”

Frank Gaensler, whose partner Yetty Bennett died in the disaster, was pronounced clinically dead when he was pulled from the river and remained in a coma for five days.

“It’s astounding,” said Gaensler. “They seem to have very short memories. These guys have not a care in the world. Their attitude sucks.”

He added, “I have moved on but the pain never goes away.”

Warren Zines’s wife Lynne simply asked: “What difference will it make?" She noted, "To me it’s like it happened yesterday. “It doesn’t get any easier.”

Maccabi Australia officials contacted in Israel this week declined to comment on the pair’s posts.

“The anniversary of the bridge disaster is always a sad time,” president Lisa Borowick told Haaretz. She said five survivors who had not been back to the Games since 1997 had accepted an offer by MWU to complete the march into the opening ceremony on July 18, to be held this year at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium.

On Monday, the Australian delegation traveled to the permanent memorial at Ramat Gan stadium for a special official service, sanctioned by MWU. Among them was Greg Small’s son Josh, who is competing in tenpin bowls, completing the journey his father was denied. Also present was 2013 Maccabiah chairman Amir Peled, who defended Bakalarz in 1999 when he refused to stand down amid mounting Australian anger.

Ron Weiser, past president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, described the disaster at the time as the “greatest wrench” in the history of relations between the two countries.

This week he said it was “inconceivable” that anyone associated with the tragedy could retain any position inside Maccabi.

“The problem is that Eyal did stand down from his then job in connection to the Maccabiah as did Bakalarz, and they have not returned to their positions,” Weiser said. “The moral issue is that they have stuck to the letter of the law but not what we had thought would be the full ramifications of the intent.”

Peter Wertheim, of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said: “It is incredible that those who were found by the Israeli courts to be chiefly responsible for the tragedy have been given new positions of responsibility in Kfar Maccabiah. “It is hard to believe that a Jewish organization would behave with such callous disregard for the value of human life.”

But Yoram Eyal stressed this week he has no “organizational involvement” in the Maccabiah. He did admit, however, that as general manager of Kfar Maccabiah (the Maccabiah Village), “I bear responsibility for all guests,” whether or not they are connected to Maccabi or the Maccabiah.

“I regard it as natural that the passage of time will not, nor should it, dull the memory of the tragedy in 1997,” Eyal told Haaretz. “No day has passed since then without my profound regret and respect for the lives that were lost and for their families, and it will be so to the end of my days.”

Within the 400-plus Australian contingent are many survivors from 1997, including Harry Procel, now the head of delegation, and golfer Roy Vandersluis, the only athlete ever to have competed at all 10 Maccabiah Games since 1977.

“I was the very, very next person to go on the bridge but I had an Israeli soldier’s hand on my chest saying ‘enough’,” Vandersluis has since recalled. “I stood there and watched it before my eyes. The people who right in front of me were dead. It could have been me.”

But Colin Elterman, who led the battle against Maccabi, remains indignant. “It is little wonder that ordinary Israelis don’t give a toss about the Maccabiah. The disaster made the Maccabiah famous in Israel only because of the embarrassment ordinary Israelis felt by being so badly let down.”

Gil Cohen-Magen
Henry Benjamin