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Guests Mourn Deaths in Hall Collapse

May 26, 2001 GMT

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JERUSALEM (AP) _ Hundreds went from dancing at a wedding to weeping at funerals and police arrested eight people amid mounting suspicion that shoddy construction caused a banquet hall to collapse in the worst civilian accident in Israel’s history.

Rescue workers used their hands, cranes and heavy-powered shovels to comb through the debris at the Versailles banquet hall, hoping to find survivors in the rubble. At least 24 people died in Thursday night’s catastrophe, and more than 300 were injured.

It was not clear how many people were missing. An Israeli army official said no relatives have inquired about missing people in recent hours, but it is still possible that someone is buried in the rubble.

Rabbis gave permission for the painstaking search to continue through the Sabbath, invoking the Jewish belief that the value of saving lives overrides any other religious commandment. The biblically mandated Jewish day of rest begins at sundown Friday.

The exact moment the celebration turned to tragedy was captured in a terrifying wedding video. Footage broadcast repeatedly worldwide showed smiling faces on the packed dance floor; seconds later, hundreds of dancers were sucked into a giant abyss of orange sparks and smoke.

Among those arrested was the inventor of a cheaper, lightweight construction method used in the hall and in many public buildings built in Israel in the 1980s, police said Saturday. The method, which uses metal plates and thinner layers of cement in ceilings, was barred in 1996.

Also in custody were four owners of the building, the contractor responsible for its construction in 1986, the head of the company that carried out renovations three months ago and an engineer.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said his preliminary examination of the building file disclosed findings ``that trouble me very much.″ He did not give details.

At Jerusalem’s Shamgar Cemetery, thousands attended one funeral after another Friday, including that of 3-year-old Itai Yakov Dayan. Wrapped in a white burial shroud, Dayan’s tiny body filled up only half of the stretcher that carried him to his grave.

Israel TV’s Channel Two said an investigation showed negligence in the original 1986 construction of the four-story building, and that a supporting column was removed in renovations three months ago. Late Thursday, one of the engineers under suspicion sent a worker to the municipal offices in Jerusalem to try to snatch documents linked to the construction, the report said. Police refused comment on the report.

The ceiling manufacturer insisted the structure wouldn’t have collapsed if the support column hadn’t been removed, Israel television reported.

Touring the site, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called the accident a ``national disaster″ and said he would convene a special Cabinet meeting to look into the possibility of launching an official commission of inquiry.

At the scene, exhausted workers took naps on thin black mattresses next to chunks of concrete and rubble.

Assi and Keren Sror had just become husband and wife and many of their 600 guests had streamed on the dance floor late Thursday for the heart-thumping dancing common at Jewish weddings.

Video footage showed joyous guests dancing on one another’s shoulders and kissing the bride and groom after Assi Sror smashed a glass under his foot _ marking the end of the ceremony and the start of the party.

Suddenly the dancers disappeared as the floor buckled underneath them, plunging three stories. Screaming guests scrambled for safety; a handful peered into the crater in disbelief.

The video, shot by wedding cameraman David Amromin, showed one man scooping up a little girl in the mayhem. Stunned partygoers grasped their heads in shock. Wine glasses and bottled remained standing on a few of the round black-topped tables.

A little girl in a frilly white dress, caught on videotape dancing in the arms of a man seconds before the collapse, survived. Later pictures showed her with cuts and bruises on her face.

The couple had planned a wedding at a kibbutz on the outskirts of Jerusalem, near the West Bank. Israel TV said they decided to hold it at the banquet hall instead, because they feared the recent violence in the Palestinian territories.