In slow comb through collapsed garage, rescuers cling to scant hope they’ll find the missing
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In slow comb through collapsed garage, rescuers cling to scant hope they’ll find the missing

Three men are still trapped under the rubble of a Tel Aviv parking structure, as soldiers tunnel to reach them in time

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Soldiers in the IDF Home Front Command fill bags with rubble during the rescue effort at a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv's Ramat Hahayal neighborhood on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Soldiers in the IDF Home Front Command fill bags with rubble during the rescue effort at a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv's Ramat Hahayal neighborhood on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

When the rescue workers took out the bright white body bag, it wasn’t clear if they were just preparing for the possibility or if they knew they had found a dead body.

But moments later, as the rescue team pulled the victim out of the rubble on a stretcher, wrapped in the white plastic bag, any hope or uncertainty regarding the man’s fate was dashed. The collapse had claimed another life.

The body, which was brought out just after 3:30 in the afternoon on Tuesday, was the third fatality to be extracted the rubble of a four-story underground parking garage being built in the Ramat Hahayal neighborhood of Tel Aviv that collapsed a little before 11:30 a.m. Monday.

As of Tuesday evening, three more people were still missing in the pit of sand, concrete and rebar at the corner of Habarzel and Hanechoshet streets.

Search and rescue workers remove a third body from the rubble of a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Search and rescue workers remove a third body from the rubble of a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

When the garage came down it brought with it approximately “140,000 cubic feet (4,000 cubic meters) of dirt, not including the concrete,” Dudi Mizrahi, head of the national search and rescue unit, told reporters on Tuesday.

The three floors “sandwiched” as they fell, stacking one on top of the other, but left some gaps of air in between, Maj. Dan Diamant of the Home Front Command told The Times of Israel at the site of the collapse.

Soldiers in the IDF Home Front Command take part in the rescue effort at a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv's Ramat Hahayal neighborhood on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Soldiers in the IDF Home Front Command take part in the rescue effort at a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal neighborhood on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Thus far, the rescue teams have taken out roughly a third of the debris, Mizrahi said.

It is slow and tedious work, and much of it is being done by hand. On Tuesday afternoon, Diamant estimated that the rescue teams have “at least another 24 hours” of work ahead of them.

A major in the reserves, Diamant was notified about the disaster minutes after it happened.

He quickly set out from his job at a high tech company in Tel Aviv, and about half an hour later arrived on the scene as assistant operations officer for the national search and rescue unit.

For over 24 hours straight, Diamant and hundreds of other soldiers — both conscripts and reservists — from the Home Front Command have been working to locate and rescue the construction workers trapped under the rubble.

“We know their approximated locations,” Diamant said.

By speaking with other workers who were on the scene prior to the collapse, coupled with the IDF’s various seismic, acoustic and cellular technologies, the Home Front Command has been able to estimate where the three men are located, he explained.

For one of the men, the rescuers know where he is “give or take a meter or two,” while for the other two, the approximation is less exact, Diamant said.

But there is still hope.

Twenty-four hours — closer to 35, as of publishing — is “still a legitimate amount of time” to find people under the rubble, Diamant said.

The rescuers are operating under the assumption that the three men are still alive, unless they get definitive proof to the contrary, he said.

“There’s a very good chance of reaching them,” Diamant added.

Soldiers in the IDF Home Front Command take part in the rescue effort at a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv's Ramat Hahayal neighborhood on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Soldiers in the IDF Home Front Command take part in the rescue effort at a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal neighborhood on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Diamant, who has worked at disaster sites in Israel and abroad during his 14 years of service, compared this disaster to the 2001 collapse of the Versailles wedding hall in Jerusalem.

In that case as well, several floors collapsed suddenly, killing 23 people and injured hundreds more. It remains the worst civil disaster in Israel’s history.

Rescue workers toil to find survivors in the ruins of a parking garage a day after it collapsed in Tel Aviv, September 6, 2016 (Miriam Alster FLASH90)
Rescue workers toil to find survivors in the ruins of a parking garage a day after it collapsed in Tel Aviv, September 6, 2016 (Miriam Alster FLASH90)

But while the Versailles wedding hall collapse resulted in far more casualties, the incident in Ramat Hahayal presents an ever greater challenge to rescue workers, as the disaster site is located three stories below ground.

If the parking garage had been above ground, rescue forces would be able to set up a base of command outside the site, moving in people and equipment as needed.

“Working at a depth is much more complicated,” Diamant said. “All your equipment needs to be inside the site. You can’t just put it in some backyard.”

Soldiers in the IDF Home Front Command fill bags with rubble during the rescue effort at a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv's Ramat Hahayal neighborhood on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Soldiers in the IDF Home Front Command fill bags with rubble during the rescue effort at a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal neighborhood on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

As the site is still unstable, heavier engineering vehicles could not be brought into the site, and the rubble could only be brought out at a painstakingly slow rate.

The four small frontloaders that are being used on the disaster site had to be lowered in by crane as well, Diamant said.

Inside the pit, soldiers from the Home Front Command used shovels and their gloved hands to fill metal dumpsters and large bags with rocks and dirt. Once full, one of the three massive cranes stationed outside would lower its hooks to lift the load out of the site and onto a truck standing by on the street.

The process of loading debris, lowering the hooks, attaching them and lifting the bag or dumpster full of rubble out of the pit takes several minutes. There are no shortcuts.

Overnight, soldiers slept on the ground in a grassy area nearby. Or didn’t sleep at all, in Diamant’s case.

Safety for the rescue workers is still a concern, as the site is still considered unstable. Specially trained soldiers constantly monitor the site for movement underfoot and overhead, Diamant said.

Parts of the surrounding walls also had to be shored up in order to prevent further collapse, Mizrahi said.

“There’s no such thing as a safe disaster site,” Diamant said.

Soldiers in the IDF Home Front Command pull out the body of a construction worker who died in a parking garage collapse in Tel Aviv's Ramat Hahayal neighborhood on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Soldiers in the IDF Home Front Command pull out the body of a construction worker who died in a parking garage collapse in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal neighborhood on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

It was not immediately clear why exactly the garage collapsed. Workers have said they’d made complaints about the building prior to the incident, but there has been no conclusive evidence yet if shoddy workmanship, inferior building materials, a poorly conceived architectural plan, an act of God or some combination of all four was to blame.

Two of the three deceased victims have thus far been identified. One was Ahd Marouf al-Hajj, a 34-year-old Palestinian from Bayt Rima in the northern West Bank; the second was Diyan Pudens, a 28-year-old Ukrainian national.

The third, who was pulled out of the rubble on Tuesday afternoon, has yet to be named.

His body was pulled out of the rubble in the northeastern side of the collapsed garage. As he was carried across the site, some of the hundreds of IDF soldiers and rescue workers at the site paused and watched, while others continued working.

Search and rescue workers remove a third body from the rubble of a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Search and rescue workers remove a third body from the rubble of a collapsed parking garage in Tel Aviv on September 6, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The body was laid at the bottom of a staircase leading out of the site, where rescuers started the process of identifying him.

Members of the press pushed to try and film the process. “Let us give this guy a final honor. It’s a human story,” one cameraman said.

But handlers from the Home Front Command insisted that the journalists leave. There was more work to be done, they said.

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