Israel mourns first astronaut's death
Sharon: 'We all are holding hands and we all pray together'
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel's first astronaut, shuttle Columbia payload specialist Ilan Ramon, was praised Saturday as a symbol of "excellence and freedom" and mourned by his countrymen as "the best we could offer."
Colonel Ramon, 48, a career military man, was the pilot who dropped a bomb on a nuclear plant under construction in Iraq in 1981, destroying it.
President Bush, in a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, called Ramon a "brave Israeli citizen" and said his death was "tragic," a spokesman for Sharon said.
"This is a tragic day for the families of the astronauts and a tragic day for science," Bush said.
Ramon's father, Eliezer Wolferman, had gone to a television station in Jerusalem to watch the landing and was conducting a live interview when the anchor broke in to say the shuttle was having problems and that the station was switching to a reporter at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"It's very difficult," Wolferman said later, at his house. "We never expected such a thing to happen. That's all I can say at the moment."
Last month, in an interview with the newspaper Ma'ariv, Ramon said: "The chances an accident would happen in space are very small. As far as safety is concerned, I'm not concerned at all ... I'm sorry, but I'm not afraid."
He added, "In NASA, safety takes precedence over everything else. The shuttle has backup upon backup upon backup."
Bush called Sharon about 1:30 p.m. EST at the newly re-elected prime minister's farm in southern Israel, said Ra'anan Gissin, spokesman for the prime minister.
Bush asked Sharon to pass along his condolences and those of the American people to Ramon's family to "strengthen their hand at this difficult moment," Gissin said.
According to Gissin, Sharon offered his condolences to the American people and the astronauts' families.
In such a moment, Sharon said, the "hearts of the American people and the people of Israel are bonded together. We all are holding hands and we all pray together."
The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that Sharon telephoned Ramon's father Saturday to express his sorrow.
Wolferman said he told the prime minister: "We never expected this. Up until the last minute we hoped it would all go smoothly. ... Now we don't have Ilan [anymore]. A great tragedy has befallen us."
Ramon's brother-in-law Gabi Bar sobbed as he spoke to an Israeli television station a short while later. "This is a moment of crisis," he said. "I don't know how we can come to terms with the loss of Ilan."
Israelis praise Ramon
Meanwhile, accolades continue to pour in for Ramon from across Israeli society.
"Ramon was not just a pilot or astronaut," Dan Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN. "He was a symbol. A symbol of excellence and freedom, when Israel was undergoing one of the most difficult experiences of its life."
Ramon's shuttle flight had brought a lot of "hope and elation" to the Israel public, Gillerman said. Now, the "devastation and the horror and the grief are just unimaginable."
"We are in shock," said Professor Zeev Levin of Tel Aviv University. "All of the experiments we've done are lost, but nothing is worth the heavy price we're paying now."
The Israeli Embassy dispatched a team to Florida to be with Ramon's wife, four children and parents, an embassy spokesman told CNN. Ramon's family had traveled from Israel to watch the shuttle land.
Security surrounding Columbia's liftoff and landing had been increased because officials feared Ramon's presence might make the shuttle more of a terrorist target. Nevertheless, American officials said, there had been no troubling intelligence before the flight, and they do not believe terrorism was involved in the disaster.
Newspapers in Israel gave Ramon's flight front-page coverage, and Israeli television networks carried the liftoff live. Ramon's popularity was boosted by the pride he took in his country. He said he was not particularly religious but had decided to eat kosher food in orbit.
"I'm secular in my background, but I'm going to respect all kinds of Jews all over the world," Ramon said before his flight.
Ramon, the son and grandson of survivors of the Auschwitz death camp, also honored those who endured the Holocaust. He carried a small pencil drawing titled "Moon Landscape" by Peter Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy killed at Auschwitz.
As word spread in Israel about the tragedy, people reacted with shock and sadness.
"We are all watching with great worry and praying for Ramon," said Moshe Fogel, head of the ministry of science.