May 31, 2001
Wedding Hall Disaster
Israel has set up a state commission of inquiry into building safety after 23 people were killed and hundreds injured when a wedding hall collapsed last week.
The May 24 collapse at the Versailles wedding hall in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood has spurred a public outcry over what are considered widespread problems of corner-cutting by contractors and lax enforcement of building codes by local authorities.
The collapse also heightened fears that poor construction practices could make many buildings disaster prone -- all the more so because Israel is located in an earthquake zone.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said those guilty of negligence must be brought to justice.
Israelis "pay a heavy and needless price as a result of a disregard for law and order," he said at a joint news conference with Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.
The commission will address construction problems in general, not the Versailles hall collapse specifically.
A government statement issued Tuesday said the commission will examine the "full range of professional and legal questions related to the safety of buildings and places designed for public use."
In what was considered Israel's worst civilian disaster, 23 people were killed and more than 200 injured last week when the dance floor collapsed beneath the feet of wedding guests, plunging them three stories in a cloud of broken concrete and twisted steel.
One of the dead was a 3-year-old boy. Rescuers said they found the bodies of an entire family sitting around a party table smashed in the wreckage.
The bride and groom, Keren and Assaf Dror, were injured and received adjoining hospital beds.
A video of the collapse showed well-dressed partygoers dancing under colored lights when the floor gave way beneath them.
Police detained at 11 people for questioning -- including the owners of the hall, engineers and building contractors -- following the disaster.
Among those held by police was the inventor of a construction method used in the wedding hall and in many other buildings built in Israel during the 1980s.
According to reports, more than 6,500 structures in Israel were built using the cheaper Pal-Kal method, which uses thinner sections of concrete than usual during construction. The building method was banned in 1996 because of safety concerns.
An initial inquiry indicated that recent renovations at the wedding hall -- including the removal of supporting walls and beams, as well as the use of the Pal-Kal construction method -- could have contributed to the building's collapse.
Police also are investigating possible allegations of lax enforcement of building codes by municipal officials, including possible corruption.
Some of those detained were suspected of trying to remove municipal files regarding the wedding hall before police nabbed them.
Citing the sensitivity and complexity of the case, Israel's police commissioner transferred the investigation from the Jerusalem police to the national fraud squad.
In the wake of the collapse, a special hotline set up by the Israel Building Association was flooded with calls from worried Israelis.
Meanwhile, local officials have ordered inspections of buildings designated for public use.
Haifa's mayor, Amram Mitzna, on Tuesday ordered a banquet hall closed after city inspectors concluded that renovation work on the building had raised the risk of collapse.