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Friday, 25 May, 2001, 05:04 GMT 06:04 UK
How the tragedy unfolded
The rescue operation continues at the Jerusalem wedding hall
Wedding guests join with rescuers to search for survivors
The wedding blessings had just been completed. Almost 700 people were dancing on the third floor of the Versailles ballroom in west Jerusalem.

The time was about 2245 local time (1945 GMT) and it was a traditional evening to remember.

Some of the hundreds who were injured after falling from a party on the third floor
Dazed and confused after scrambling from the wreckage

Then tragedy struck.

"We were eating the hors d'oeuvre when I saw the bride's father, who was dancing, suddenly disappear", said Sarah Pinhas, a relative of the groom.

"There was a huge noise and the floor suddenly opened up, creating a huge hole," she said.

"I was lucky, as our table was in a corner where the floor held on."

Wedding guest Shossi Shemesh said: "I heard a huge noise... I thought the disc jockey was playing a joke on us, and suddenly, I found myself three floors lower," she told Israel's first television channel.

Israeli paramedics evacuate an injured child
Many children were at the celebration and were among the victims

The centre of the top floor had 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.

Many had fallen to their deaths. More were injured - many seriously. And it was possible at least a hundred may be trapped below the huge piles of rubble.

The immediate assumption inside was that a bomb had gone off.

Outside too the assumption was that terrorists had struck.

Israel is well equipped for just such a catastrophe and within minutes emergency crews began arriving on the scene.

Survivors

As reports started filtering through, the Chief of Intelligence Police for Israel, David Tzuri, said the collapse was due to an engineering failure and ruled out the possibility of a bomb attack.

Immediately after the collapse, Israel radio reported that a convoy of ambulances was heading to Jerusalem from other parts of the country.

The aftermath of the wedding hall collapse during a wedding reception in Jerusalem
Wounded victims wait for assistance next to the building
Meanwhile inside the building survivors were doing whatever they could.

Amir Weiss said: "I was dancing when I felt the floor collapsing. But together with my wife and a dozen guests, I managed to cling on to a pillar.

"We tied table cloths together, and we reached a safe point, five to 10 metres lower down. The rescuers arrived later to rescue us with ladders."

Police and rescue workers had trouble containing the hundreds of bystanders. Rescue workers had to shout at the crowd to move out of the way as they tried to evacuate the injured to Jerusalem's three main hospitals.

Lights out

With a serious danger of another part of the building collapsing, the workers were unable to use heavy machinery and were obliged to work by hand.

Just over an hour after the accident, the building's blue neon lights went out, making operations even more complicated.

Many of the rescuers were wearing helmets with miners' lamps, in an attempt to save what was now thought to be about one hundred people still trapped under the rubble.

Arih Danon, who went into the building, described the ballroom: "I could see the rescue workers attaching drips to the victims, but the victims were hidden."

Three hours after the tragedy, the scene was still one of total chaos, as more people gathered around the building, which by then had a huge hole in its side.

Mobile phones

Dozens of injured had been taken on stretchers, and sniffer dogs were brought in to find some more survivors under the debris.

Police chief David Tzuri said: "We have no idea how many are still buried."

He said some of those trapped had used mobile phones to tell relatives they were still alive.

Meanwhile the hospitals and community centres were filling up.

Missing

Flecked with blood and caked in dust, an elderly Israeli man sat alone in a corner where police were informing families of the names of injured people who survived.

"I am looking for my wife. She may be hurt," he said.

The grey-haired survivor was joined by his son and the two of them sat quietly.

Suddenly one of the workers called out a family name, which matched the man's own.

He and his son leapt up, shouting her first name joyously.

By cruel coincidence, it was not her. She was still missing.

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