Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Sivan 5761 - May 30, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Building Collapse in Yerushalayim Kills 23 and Injures Hundreds
by Yated Ne'eman Staff

The dance floor of a wedding hall in the Talpiyot neighborhood of Yerushalayim collapsed last Thursday night at around 10:45 p.m. sending 23 people to their deaths and injuring hundreds. On Tuesday after Shavuos, five days after the tragedy, over 100 people were still hospitalized eight of them in serious condition.

Health Minister Nissim Dahan on Sunday asked Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert to allow families who had scheduled events in the ill-fated Versailles Hall to relocate them to Sacher Park or the Jerusalem International Convention Center at no cost. Olmert agreed, according to the Health Ministry spokesman's office.

Ten people were arrested by Jerusalem police over the weekend in connection with the collapse of the Versailles banquet hall. They include the four owners of the banquet hall, Avi and Dudu Adi, Uri Nissim, and Ephraim Adiv; the building and renovation contractor, Yaakov Adiv; the engineer, Danny Sheffer; and the inventor of the flooring method used in the hall, Eli Ron. The primary suspects in the case are suspected of manslaughter and criminal negligence for their actions which led to the fatal tragedy. Some of the suspects are suspected of obstruction of justice. After the accident they reportedly tried to remove important documents from municipal records. Jerusalem police are investigating the possibility of serious violations of zoning and building laws since the opening of the building in 1986, as well as in the subsequent renovations and additions in the years since. Police are also investigating reports that during renovation work at the site several months ago, four support columns and walls were removed in order to increase the amount of space in the hall.

Police and engineers say that a mix of shoddy construction, reckless renovation, building violations, and criminal negligence led to the Thursday night collapse of the Versailles banquet hall during a large wedding, which was the worst civilian disaster in Israel's history.

In the middle of the wedding, the floor of the top story of the building suddenly gave way. It collapsed onto the floor below, that almost immediately collapsed onto the ground floor of the building. About 700 people were in the building at the time of the accident.

One guest said that she was sitting at her table when it suddenly disappeared. She and her daughter were left two balatot (floor tiles, 60 centimeters -- two feet) from a gaping hole. One man described how he held onto his son as they fell down in two jolts.

The police and Home Front Command directed the search and rescue efforts. Crews had practical experience, acquired in the earthquake in Turkey and in several exercises held in Israel to simulate such large scale disasters. The rescue efforts continued until it was determined that everyone was accounted for.

Over 100 ambulances came, as well as 14 intensive care ambulances and five more elaborate mobile first aid stations. The Yerushalayim hospitals all went on to emergency status, and personnel came to work to provide care. The municipality asked workers to go to the hospitals to help out, and Ezer Mitzion also organized and sent its volunteers to helped the overburdened hospital staffs.

Yerushalayim was in mourning on Friday, as there was a levaya every fifteen minutes for several hours at the Shamgar funeral center.

Monday night, an inner wall and the remainder of the third floor ceiling of the banquet hall caved in, confirming police and engineers' fears over such a likelihood during the hazardous 48-hour search and rescue effort. No one was injured in the latest collapse at the site, since the remains of the building have been cordoned off by police pending demolition by the municipality.

The building was built 15 years ago as an industrial building, but it was later converted for use as a banquet hall. In 1993, the municipality issued a 4-year temporary permit for the change, but since 1997 the hall has been functioning without a valid permit. It is not yet clear if the Jerusalem Municipality demanded that the building undergo engineering analysis before allowing the change of designation.

In Israel, the standard for withstanding burdens is set according to the designation of a building, according to Renee Eisenstein, head of the Northern Branch for Construction at the Standards Institute.

The floor of a building for use as a high-tech office needs to be able to carry a load of 250 kilograms per square meter, while a building used for residential purposes needs to carry a load of 150 kilograms per square meter. A banquet hall needs to be able to carry a load of 500 kilograms per square meter. In addition to these standards, adds Eisenstein, an extra 40 percent safety buffer, as well as 20 percent of the floor's own weight, is added to the standard before construction is approved.

A request to change the designation is supposed to include the calculations of an authorized engineer showing the ability of the building to withstand the burdens imposed by the new function, however in practice it is difficult if not impossible to verify if all the assumptions of the engineer are realistic or not.

Widespread illegal and unsupervised changes in the designation of Israeli buildings could lead to more catastrophes such as the one at the Versailles Hall last Thursday according to some observers.

In general in Israel there are thousands of illegal buildings. Most are comparatively small buildings in outlying agricultural areas used for farming purposes. However there are also some unlicensed structures used as homes. In the Lod-Ramle region there said to be hundreds of such illegal residential buildings. Many illegal buildings are owned by Arabs. Local officials have declared the buildings illegal, but have done nothing to demolish them, partly because local police refuse to cooperate and offer security protection. Demolishing an illegal home is difficult since it involves displacing a family and the workers can be attacked by irate family members.

Agriculture Ministry records list at least 8,000 illegal buildings on moshavim. Illegal buildings are often built at less expense than legal buildings since no one ensures that they are built according to construction codes, and the owners do not have to pay taxes on them since they do not legally exist.

Hundreds of other buildings are used for purposes other than those cited in their construction licenses. Getting a proper permit can take months and requires the aid of various experts. Sometimes the process can drag on for years.

A state commission of inquiry is expected to be appointed at a special government meeting called by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for Tuesday to discuss the disaster, while the Knesset is to hold a special session on the hall collapse.

The Pal-Kal flooring method used in the banquet hall's flooring is a cheap, lightweight construction method popular in the 1980s which uses metal plates and thin layers of cement. It was banned by the Israel Standards Institute in 1996 because it does not meet safety standards.

Since the Thursday collapse of the hall, an investigation has found that at least 500,000 meters (5,000,000 square feet) of floor space in Israel were constructed with the Pal- Kal method, including such prestigious buildings as the Bank of Israel, the Hebrew Union College, the Caesar Hotel in Tiveria, and Tel Aviv University's main library.


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