Rabbi Rachmiel Steinberg and his family were finishing their Shavuot meal last Friday afternoon when a loud drone drew their attention to the window. His son, Levi Yitzchak, screamed, "Tati, that airplane is going into the building." They heard a thunderous crash and then saw plumes of heavy black smoke billowing skyward.
Steinberg threw on his Hatzolah reflector vest, grabbed his equipment bag and ran to the scene just two blocks away. He and Shmueli Hauptman, both volunteers for the Hatzolah medical emergency response corps, were the first two emergency personnel on the scene after a small aircraft nosedived into an apartment building and exploded at Spaulding Avenue and Clinton Street, just south of Melrose Avenue and east of Fairfax Avenue. When they arrived, some of the injured were just starting to straggle out of the burning building, while others were jumping from second- and third-story windows.
Steinberg and Hauptman sent out a call for more volunteers, started treating the injured and within minutes of county and city fire units' arrival, they and 12 other Hatzolah volunteers had set up a treatment post on mats across the street from the burning building.
"It was one of those very scary moments, where you don't really know what is happening," said Rabbi Chaim Kolodny, coordinator of Hatzolah of Los Angeles, who heard the Hatzolah radio message and was on the scene within minutes of the crash. "But the training just kicks in."
Five people were killed and nine injured when the Beechcraft Bonanza 36 plunged through the 14-unit building at 4 p.m., shortly after taking off from Santa Monica Airport. The four passengers on the plane -- pilot Jeffrey T. Siegel; Tony and Bonnie Vinatieri; and Jennifer Kaplan, Siegel's niece -- and building resident Tibor Reis, a 78-year-old Holocaust survivor, died in the accident (see sidebar).
Hatzolah, Hebrew for "rescue," is a volunteer first-response team that has been active in the Beverly-La Brea-Fairfax neighborhood since September 2001. Thirty-five Orthodox men are trained as emergency medical technicians and are on call through a round-the-clock dispatch system, also run by volunteers. The Hatzolah volunteers have all gone through the Los Angeles City Fire Department's Community Emergency Response Team training to prepare for major disasters -- such earthquakes or Friday's crash -- or terrorist attacks.
Tzvika Brenner, a founder and president of Hatzolah of Los Angeles, was on the scene acting as a liaison between fire personnel and the Hatzolah volunteers, receiving orders for his men from the professional paramedics.
"When you come to a scene of that magnitude, you can't just barge in and do whatever you want," Brenner said. "There are safety elements, and you have to work alongside other people to make sure that you don't get in their way, but they need to know where you are so they can take advantage of you."
Anthony Marrone, a battalion chief with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, was impressed with Hatzolah's professionalism and its ability to work as part of the emergency team, especially in a situation with many victims and a raging aviation fuel fire.
"It allows for more firefighters to be assigned to fighting the fire or rescuing people out of the windows, so the service they provide is invaluable," Marrone said. "How do you put a price tag on freeing firefighters for other tasks, especially at an incident where there is so much to do?"
While paramedics did triage and concentrated on those with major injuries, Hatzolah volunteers treated victims with minor injuries and assisted in their transfer to waiting ambulances. Hatzolah also contributed important backup supplies and were able to communicate with an 88-year-old Yiddish-speaking resident.
Marrone was already familiar with Hatzolah, because the volunteers regularly ride along with the Police and Fire departments and keep in contact with the leadership of both.
"We know Hatzolah, and they are part of our team," Marrone said. "They are very well accepted."
Since its inception almost two years ago, Hatzolah has answered about 1,000 emergency calls, ranging from car accidents to cardiac arrest to broken fingers on children.
The volunteers all live in the neighborhood and can answer calls within seconds, offering an important bridge in emergency medical care until an ambulance arrives. Once the paramedics arrive, Hatzolah transfers patient care to the professionals.
The volunteers have a blanket dispensation to violate the laws of Shabbat and Yom Tov to save lives. They did, however, decline to speak into the microphones held out by the press when they were leaving the crash scene on Shavuot.
Currently, Hatzolah operates only in the Beverly-La-Brea-Fairfax area, but volunteers are training in Valley Village, and discussions are ongoing in the Pico-Robertson area.
Fifth District Councilman Jack Weiss, who was on the scene last Friday, was impressed with Hatzolah's work.
"I've known Rabbi Kolodny and Tzvika Brenner and other Hatzolah people for two years, and I've never met such a dedicated group of community volunteers," Weiss said.
Marrone attributes their dedication to their Jewish ethics and community values.
"They are a wonderful group of dedicated people that go above and beyond every day, and they will be there when the community needs them and the department needs them," he said. "The name they have made for themselves is outstanding."
For more information about Hatzolah, please call their non-emergency info/fax line at (323) 931-6453, or visit them on the Web at www.hatzolah.org .