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Volume 31, Issue 2

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Thursday, 24 May 2001 is a date that will be long remembered by many Israelis. As some 700 invited guests were celebrating a wedding in the Versailles Hall in Jerusalem, the floor suddenly collapsed, leaving hundreds injured in the worst civilian disaster that has occurred in the country’s 53 year history. The cave-in was vividly recorded by the video photographer hired to film the wedding.

Army extrication teams removed the bodies of 23 people over a period of two days. Work at the site, conducted despite the possibility of further structural collapse, stopped only after all persons reported missing were located.

 

 

For the owners of the Versailles Hall there is no issue of business recovery. The Hall has served its last meal. What remains of the building will be torn down after all evidence revealing cause of the tragedy is collected. The alleged “shortcuts” to initial licensing will be the subject of police investigation, and the owners will be spending much of their time in the coming months facing a series of legal questions and suits. If anything is to be learnt, it is that shortcuts to “save” money in the short run can be overwhelmingly expensive in the long run.

The same is true with construction materials. The building was constructed for light industry, and the flooring was made using Pal-Kal, a material and method designed to save the cost of metal. A company engineer reportedly expressed repeated doubts about the system. The Israel Standards Institute would not give its approval. The Israel Ministry of Interior issued an instruction in 1996 not to approve construction using the Pal-Kal system, yet use of Pal-Kal continued, and a second instruction was issued again in 1998. Now, not only is the Pal-Kal producer out of business. There is a general public reluctance to enter the numerous buildings throughout Israel that were built with Pal-Kal, particularly after press reports of several instances in which cracks appeared.

The difficulties of rescheduling weddings slated for Versailles Hall in the days and weeks after the disaster were greeted by families with words of thanks that the disaster did not occur during their moment of joy. At least one alternative hall was accused of price gauging when approached to host a wedding booked in Versailles for five days after the disaster. Again, the caterer’s thinking was shortsighted. The negative impression in public eyes cannot ever be corrected, even with a full-scale advertising campaign.

The popularly touted immediate cause of the disaster was the ostensible unauthorized removal of supporting walls as part of an enlargement and renovation program. It is overly simplistic, however, to think that any one single cause can be faulted for the Versailles Hall disaster.

Would the building have collapsed if for nothing more than the suspected removal of the supporting walls? Perhaps. Perhaps not on 24 May, but a week or a month later.


 After the tragedy it became apparent that the catering establishment had been operating since 1997 without a proper license. The municipality-judicial interface also failed, as the city’s requests from the courts for closing of the improperly licensed business were repeatedly deferred. This cannot be cited as a direct cause of the accident, but it certainly is an indication that regulatory oversight was not functioning properly.


Looking for a single cause to the disaster is a disguised witch-hunt, a search for a villain who can be punished. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that there were numerous contributing causes to the disaster.

In Israel, as in many countries, a disaster prevention “system” has developed, stressing inspection, licensing, and mitigation measures. This system, if not fully coordinated in the most formal sense, provides protection and back-up against disaster. When sub-standard building materials are not caught at the production stage, they should be uncovered at plans approval during licensing or later during construction inspections. Most significant is that major parts of this disaster prevention system failed in dealing with an entire series of issues, also including unauthorized changes, blatant to all, in the facade of the building.

The floor cave-in was only the catalyst that brought to public attention the failure of numerous aspects of the disaster prevention system. Now a national commission has been appointed to investigate construction practices. If that commission is to do its work properly, it will have to look into the entire disaster prevention system as it relates to construction.


 The entire catering industry has a vested commercial interest in the disaster inquiries.

Perhaps as more of an emotional reaction than calculated decision, many people planning weddings are reconsidering the halls they are renting. They are asking for engineers’ reports.

They are also giving preference to ground level establishments, particularly with extensive outdoor areas. This will probably carry through the summer season, when there are no rains to complicate open-air affairs.

In a town north of Haifa, more than a two hour drive from Jerusalem, another hall had a curious problem. It, too, was called Versailles Hall.

Although there was absolutely no connection between the two halls, many people mistakenly thought differently. The hall quickly changed its name.

Following the Versailles Hall collapse there was an interesting problem of business continuity, and it came from a totally unexpected corner. The bride worked in the Zion Square branch of Bank HaPoalim in downtown Jerusalem, and as is quite common, she invited many of her co-workers to the wedding. During the morning following the disaster, it quickly became obvious that the bank could not open its doors. Sixteen of the bank’s more than fifty employees had been injured in the disaster, and three had been killed. Even those who were not harmed found it difficult to work.

The temporary solution of Bank HaPoalim failed. Fill-in workers were brought in from other branches in the Jerusalem area. By 11:00 a.m., however, it was clear that these workers could not function properly in an unfamiliar branch. The bank closed early.

As the disaster becomes history, the bank will be left to deal with the psychological trauma suffered by its employees, who will never forget the wedding and for many days to come will gaze with sorrow at the desks once occupied by their deceased co-workers. The Jerusalem Municipality sent psychological intervention teams to speak with victims and their families, but that is only a short-term general measure. Only the employer can deal with specific on-the-job problems.

This was by no means a “happen once” example. The bride’s mother worked for a Jerusalem Branch of Bank Leumi. Four of that bank’s employees also died in the disaster.

There is no simple solution to business continuity when key personnel are injured or are killed. The danger is there at any gathering, whether it be a wedding, or just a group bus ride to an employee picnic. One partial solution is to rotate personnel so that the largest possible number of employees has a broad understanding of operations. Such rotation has the advantage of covering for missing employees even when there is no disaster. It also has side benefits for routine commercial operations, however it, admittedly, can only be done in sufficiently large companies.

A confirmation of this principle of personnel gathering was a wedding in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Braq a week after the Versailles Hall disaster. A major segment of the Jerusalem ambulance team was present. Emergency services, however, pose a further problem. One responder covering for another might be sufficient in routine work, but in times of disaster every possible worker is needed. So, in the tense times in Israel today, many ambulance workers celebrated at the wedding as they wore their work uniforms and parked their ambulances outside, just in case…


Dr. Jay Levinson served as Disaster Victim Identification Officer of the Israel Police before his retirement early this year. He also served for five years as Chairman, Interpol DVI Standing Committee. Dr. Levinson has lectured extensively on disaster response, and is now finishing a book on the subject to be published by Academic Press.