- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

JERUSALEM — A three-story wedding hall where hundreds of people were dancing collapsed last night, killing at least 25, officials said. Another 300 were said to be injured in what appeared to be an accident, not a terror attack.
Rescuers worked feverishly through the night to reach dozens of people who remained trapped under huge concrete slabs and metal wreckage.
The ceremony at the Versailles wedding hall had ended and guests were dancing when the building collapsed after 11 p.m., witnesses said. About 650 people were inside.
Jerusalem Police Commander Miki Levy said it was "absolutely not" a terrorist attack. He said the collapse was due to a "structural failure." Eyewitnesses interviewed by Israeli radio stations did not mention an explosion.
The center of the top floor collapsed suddenly, witnesses said, sending the concrete crashing through the floors below. The fall left a gaping, three-story hole with metal reinforcement cables hanging at twisted angles from the sides.
Israeli soldiers joined rescue workers in sifting through wreckage, among them members of a special army squad that has been dispatched to earthquake and bombing sites around the world.
One of the rescue workers, identified as Arik, said dozens of people were still trapped under huge chunks of cement. "Were lifting the concrete by hand, its too dangerous to use heavy machinery," he said, adding that it could take days to recover all the bodies.
The bride and groom suffered light injuries and were taken to separate hospitals, witnesses said. They said people on the dance floor were the first to plunge and were probably among the wounded still trapped in the rubble.
The first medics to arrive carted the wounded — smartly dressed but bruised and bloodied — over their shoulders until ambulances arrived with stretchers. Some of the guests were covered in white dust from the debris.
Ambulances streamed to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, 35 miles away.
A crowd of hundreds surrounded the building, watching the medics at work and talking about the accident as yet another misfortune, alongside ongoing battles with the Palestinians.
"This is a crazy country. If youre not shot at or bombed, you end up dying in a wedding hall accident," said Dror Sherman, one of the guests who walked away from the wreckage with just a few scratches.
Dina and Shmuel Cohen, a couple in their 40s, came to the wedding from their home in Jerusalems Gilo neighborhood, which has come under Palestinian fire regularly since last October.
Dina, one of the grooms cousins, said the shooting in Gilo was especially heavy when she left her home in the evening.
"I told my husband how nice it was to spend a night away from the mayhem of Gilo," Mrs. Cohen said. "But the destruction followed us to here as well." She spent hours outside the building after the accident waiting for word on her brother, who was still inside.
Overhead, police helicopters flashed powerful light beams toward the wrecked building.
Medical workers used loudspeakers to ask bystanders to donate blood at a provisional station set up on the street.
Avi Cohen, another guest, said he was at the refreshments table when the floor collapsed. His wife fell through the hole but he remained on a stable part of the floor. He later found his wife on the sidewalk outside the building nursing light wounds.
He said the groom was in his early 20s and had completed his military service just last year.
Israeli police have been on high alert for months to prevent Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks. Troops sealed off a section of Tel Aviv for hours yesterday on information that a bomber was about to strike. They turned up nothing.
Last Friday, a Palestinian carpenter blew himself up at the entrance to a shopping mall in the coastal town of Netanya, killing himself and five Israelis.

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