Faced with heartbreaking devastation, even the toughest seasoned first responders found themselves working on autopilot — and then broke down
Photos: Flash 90
There’s something almost mythical about the heroes in the orange vests – maybe it’s in part because of those inspiring tribute songs with the sirens in the background — always there at the worst tragedies, doing everything humanly possible to save lives, and then going back to whatever they do until the next tragedy, accident, or terror attack. There is a certain security in their presence, a knowledge that if the men in the orange vests are there, everything will be all right.
But ask some of the Hatzolah volunteers who were in Meron on Lag B’omer and you’ll find that these tough, brave men who take war and terror attacks in stride aren’t feeling very heroic. They’re living with the scenes, the sounds, and the smells, and less than a week later, the disaster is still a dark shadow over every waking moment. The 45 deaths and multiple injuries — people from their own communities who just minutes before had their arms raised heavenward in joyous dance and song as the flames of the holy bonfires rose together with their voices — extracted a toll too much even for them.
Longtime ZAKA volunteer Motti Buktzin has been coming to Meron on Lag B’omer for the past 28 years as a private citizen, and this year was no different, as he happily joined in the euphoric circles of dancers — but suddenly, the Hatzolah monitor he always carries began squawking and wouldn’t stop. [ZAKA deals with proper care of the dead, while Hatzolah is a first-responder organization, although there is a lot of overlap among the membership. -Ed.]
Someone shouted “I’m in the middle of CPR!” and then another screamed in desperation, “I’m in the middle of CPR!”
It was surrealistic, a shaken, sadder Motti said later, describing how he approached the area of the tragedy, and together with the Magen David Adom station head began to count bodies, hoping against hope that the numbers would plateau. “It was an indescribable trauma for all of us.”
Shalom Klein, head of personnel for the 120 volunteers in Hatzolah’s northern Jerusalem region, said he was getting phone calls all day Friday from wives of volunteers whose husbands were affected in ways the women — always bulwarks of support for their spouses — had never seen before.
The sheer scale of the scene, with tens of thousands of people shifting from joy to horror in a matter of minutes, was too much for some of these battle-hardened rescuers to bear, even as they made valiant efforts to resuscitate what in the end were lifeless bodies — many of them children.
“My mother was in Meron,” says Shalom, “and she refused to leave, even as they were evacuating the crowd. She said, ‘Shalom, I’m not leaving until I see that you’re in one piece.’ And I guess she knew what she was talking about. After five hours on the scene, I was shattered.”
I Couldn’t Let Go
In preparation for the joyous evening, Hatzolah members who were on duty organized themselves into shifts and divided up into several dozen teams. Shalom was in charge of the team during the Toldos Aharon hadlakah, which ended just a few minutes before the catastrophe. But that wasn’t the first accident of the night. Toward the end of Shalom’s shift, a makeshift ceiling near the Toldos Aharon bandstand fell down, and a police officer suffered a broken arm.
“We were moving him to the clinic, which is just underneath the passageway leading away from the Toldos Aharon area behind the tziyun on the men’s-only derech mehadrin, which would at that minute turn into a tunnel of death,” Shalom relates. “As I’m going down, I see people lying on the ground, so I asked someone to help escort the officer to the clinic, I got down to help, then I saw the chaos, how people were piled up on each other, how volunteers were desperately doing CPR. I saw someone lying on the ground at my feet and immediately started CPR as well. I worked on him for ten minutes — even though after four minutes irreversible oxygen deprivation sets in — until a paramedic came and told me to move on to someone else who still has a chance.
“The same thing happened four times. I managed to save one person, but I lost four.”
Shalom says that although his brain told him to move on, that there was nothing more he could do for this niftar, he couldn’t pull himself away. “I knew that 15 minutes ago he was a living, vibrant person, dancing and singing, so what’s ten minutes when talking about life? Even if it wasn’t realistic or even possible, I couldn’t let go.”
For all the valiant first-responders, the mental images are unshakable, and so Hatzolah’s psycho-trauma unit has begun the process of addressing the psychological scars. In several locations around Israel last Motzaei Shabbos, Hatzolah medics who were in Meron met for the first in a series of group therapy sessions.
In Jerusalem, Shalom joined his colleagues on the roof of the Ichud Hatzolah building, where everyone was supposed to share the trauma they’d kept bottled inside for the last 36 hours.
“When I got there and saw everyone, suddenly I started to cry. Our policy is not to share any details, not with our family members and not with the families of victims, but here, it was important to get it out of our kishkes. So I told the story — I saw one victim, I tried; another victim, I tried — and when I finished, a friend came up and asked, ‘Shalom, are you okay? Do you want us to follow up? Should I call you every day?’ They’re really great in this area — everyone worries about each other’s state, because as strong as you seem, we’re all human, and right now, everyone is very fragile.”
How does a person go back to himself after these sights? How do you go back to your wife and family?
“When you’re in the moment, you don’t have the luxury of thinking. The next day? I just made sure I wasn’t alone,” he says. “I came home and told my wife, ‘Let’s go take our food and eat with friends.’ I just didn’t want to be with myself.”
It’s a bit of a change from ten years ago, when Shalom, a self-admitted “action-oriented” 18-year-old not exactly in yeshivah, joined ZAKA. “It was a lot of action and a lot of shvitzing. When you need something to shvitz about at that age, you go for something that challenges or negates your feelings.” But now, married three years and starting a family, Shalom says he’s a different person.
“I wanted the switch. I wanted to help people while they were still alive, so I took the training to join Hatzolah. I already had nerves of steel from the years in ZAKA. You get used to blood. But a living, breathing person is a whole different category,” he says. “Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to get over this tragedy. I keep thinking, maybe I could have saved another person. I think a lot of the chevreh is feeling this way, even though in truth, we all did the best we could, and it’s not about us. It’s about Hashem’s cheshbonos.”
These first responders will do whatever it takes to preserve life, and if necessary, to ensure the honor of the dead. They will aid in the identification of the victims and gather body parts and spilled blood for proper burial. It seems these men can withstand anything — but even veterans like Benzi Oiring, a longtime Yerushalmi Hatzolah and ZAKA member who’s been responding to catastrophes and terror attacks for over three decades, admit the pain doesn’t get any easier to bear. He flashes back to a Lag B’omer morning 18 years ago that he’ll never forget. A car crash on the way back from Meron took the life of a young mother from Beit Shemesh, and after leaving the scene, Reb Benzi was assigned to notify her husband.
“It was six in the morning, and he was planning to go to Meron after she came home. I got to the door and was about to knock when I heard a toddler, crying ‘Mommy, Mommy…’ and his father answering, ‘Shh, Mommy will be home in a few minutes.’ I had to knock but I just couldn’t,” he remembers. “I started to cry and had to leave and calm down. I came back ten minutes later, and this time I knocked. Now I heard the toddler squeal happily, ‘Yay! Mommy is home!’ It took me weeks to get over that. Every time I’d walk into my own house and my kids would say ‘Yay, Tatty is home!’ I would start to cry again.”
Oiring, like any ZAKA or Hatzolah volunteer, will never share the gruesome details of what he saw. Not to any reporter and not to the families. “Family members always want to know — ‘What did my husband look like? What was my child’s condition when you found him? Did he lose a lot of blood? Did he look like he suffered or did he go right away?’ Families want to know, but I just say, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t see…’ Even if I do know and I did see, I tell them, ‘Chevreh, don’t go there, don’t do it to yourselves. What image do you want to have of your loved one for the next 120 years? Of how he was a happy, smiling person, a loving husband and father? A happy child? That’s what I want you to preserve. And if I tell you any more details, you’ll lose that image forever.’ ”
But sometimes those images are as hard for the responders as they are for the families. Naftali Ben Shaya, head of a program for the memory of fallen soldiers and a volunteer EMT for Hatzolah who happened to be in Meron this year with his friends, is still haunted by them. He was at the main entrance to the tziyun, about three minutes away from the fatal passageway, when the catastrophe happened.
“The music was still playing, people were still dancing, and in the passageway, it was death,” he says, describing the scene when he arrived. “We saw people lying on the ground, and we started doing CPR, with the music blaring in the background. But then it was just more and more. It wasn’t ending. Then all of a sudden, the music stopped.
“It was horrible. People were saying Vidui before they passed out, screaming Shema Yisrael with their last bits of strength, which you were actually happy about because it meant they still had some air left. Hundreds of people were falling, screaming, many trying to turn around and get out the way they came in but it was impossible. People with their last bit of koach were pointing to children on the side, begging us to help the child first. And you hear people screaming at you, they’re on the ground, pulling on the cuff of your pants to get your attention.
“If you ask me how I survived all that, all I can tell you is that you either just collapse, or you make a switch in your head and become like a machine, like a robot for the next few hours, and try to save whoever you can.”
Naftali, who worked for five hours straight, says there were people who left his hands alive as he passed their care to the paramedics, but there were also those he couldn’t save.
“Baruch Hashem, we got there in time to save many lives as well. I say ‘we’ because we’re always working as a team: one person connects the oxygen, one does the compressions, or helps bandage bones that were displaced. You do what you can, give it over to the medical staff, then you go on to the next one.”
It’s been just a few days, but Naftali is still haunted by the scenes — they’re there behind his eyelids when he tries to sleep and in the car when he’s driving.
“There are some scenes that have wrapped themselves around me,” he says. “One thing I keep seeing over and over: There was a father and son holding onto each other, neither knowing if the other would survive. I went to care for the father, he said, no, take care of my son. I went to the son, he said no, take care of my father. They wouldn’t let go of each other. Baruch Hashem they are both among the living. I wanted to get them out of there and into the clinic — they both were suffering from broken bones. All you can do at that point is put them on a backboard and promise they won’t be separated — which you can’t really promise but you hope — and try to move them out of there as quickly as possible.”
Naftali is no stranger to tragedy. His “first” pigua was the terror attack on the Number 2 bus in the summer of 2003. He was just eight years old then, but he lived around the corner and ran out to see if there was anything he could do, the blood and gore notwithstanding.
“People who know me think I’m really tough, thick-skinned, but at Meron, we weren’t dealing with death as we know it. We were dealing with that narrow space between life and death. There was a young child I worked on — I was able to get back his pulse — who was underneath a person we couldn’t save.”
Naftali says that he hasn’t been in contact with those he saved — he doesn’t even know who they are — but even if he could find out, he’d rather not follow up. “Until today, I haven’t seen any clips or videos. You close your eyes, and all you see are the sights of that horrible night. I’m driving, and I’m still feeling the tug on my leg, people pulling at me for help, the echo of Shema Yisrael in your head non-stop. I’m so grateful that I was able to save some people, but the price was steep. Right now, I feel like I just want to move on.”
Naftali praises Hatzolah’s mental health assistance and early intervention for its volunteers. “Look,” he says, “we’re living in a world Hashem set up in a certain way, and one of those rules is to accept tragedy and move on, not to capitulate and let it eat you up. The trauma sessions, the group sharing — it doesn’t make you forget, but it helps drain the infection.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 859)
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