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Bridge collapses at opening of Maccabiah Games

July 14, 1997 GMT

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ A bridge leading to a stadium collapsed Monday during opening ceremonies for the Maccabiah Games, hurling dozens of Australian athletes into a river. One woman was killed and 48 were injured.

For long minutes, athletes struggled to get out of the shallow Yarkon River, some entangled in twisted aluminum beams. Many linked arms and formed a human chain to pull each other out.

All the injured were believed to be from the 370-member Australian delegation, the first to cross the bridge to the Ramat Gan stadium for the athletes’ parade before a crowd of about 45,000 spectators.

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The 45-foot-long bridge, a temporary wooden span festooned with Israeli flags, broke apart while athletes were gathering for the 15th Maccabiah games, an Olympic-style event that drew about 5,600 Jewish athletes this year.

Australian team manager Harry Purcell said about 100 athletes were on the bridge when it suddenly plunged 48 feet into the river.

``We heard a crack, and a second crack, and all of a sudden the bridge collapsed,″ he said. ``People were falling on top of each other.″

About 20 ambulances rushed to the scene as helicopters hovered and divers searched the river for victims. Green hats worn by some of the Australians washed up on the muddy river banks.

``Those who were strong enough held on, and those who couldn’t hold on risked getting crushed at the bottom,″ said Peter Kurta of the Australian team.

Police chief Assaf Hefetz told The Associated Press the collapse was ``absolutely not sabotage. There was something wrong with this bridge.″

The bridge, built three weeks ago for the ceremony, was made up of wooden planks held up by green aluminum support beams.

Police Minister Avidgor Kahalani, who arrived minutes after the collapse, said the bridge had received ``all the necessary permits ... but it turns out it didn’t resist the weight.″

Police said one woman died. Yoav Eyal, head of the Maccabiah organizing committee, said 48 people were injured; reports said several of them were in serious condition. None of the victims was identified.

``I am in total shock. I can’t believe this happened,″ said Peter Lowy, a 38-year-old soccer player from Sydney who was on the bridge when it collapsed.

Israel’s Channel 2 TV broadcast amateur video showing team members in green and white uniforms trying to get out of the water, and other team members joining police in wading into the water to pull people out.

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Although the Yarkon in the area was shallow and calm, rescue efforts were hampered by the steep, muddy banks, which forced rescuers to use ropes to descend.

Police spokeswoman Linda Menuhin said two policemen were injured in the rescue efforts.

Organizers went ahead with the opening ceremony in the stadium, even as the search for victims continued outside.

``I am sorry that this is the way we open the Maccabiah Games, which should be happier, and I hope that in this Maccabiah we will achieve results that make us proud,″ said President Ezer Weizman, formally launching the 10-day event.

``We made the right decision,″ said Eyal. ``I’m sure the athletes would agree with me. The people of Israel have suffered much ... and we need to continue the games.″

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at Ichilov hospital, said that when the ceremony was started, ``the situation of the victims was not yet clear.″

More than 50 countries were represented in this year’s Maccabiah Games, which include competition in 36 sports from lawn bowling to ice hockey.

The U.S. delegation included about 600 participants. Among the participants were former NHL players Brian Wilkes of the Los Angeles Kings and Stuart Marston of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

At the ceremony, U.S. Olympic gold medalist Kerri Strug, who is a guest of honor of the games, carried an Olympic-style torch into the stadium, handing it to Israeli basketball legend Mickey Berkowitz.

On Saturday, Strug said she hoped to learn more about her Jewish heritage while visiting Israel.

Strug’s heroic final vault with an injured ankle at the Atlanta Olympics secured the U.S. women’s gymnastics team its first gold medal and was one of memorable moments of the games.