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Wedding disaster search continues

May 25, 2001 Posted: 11:16 p.m. EDT (0316 GMT)

Amateur video shows revellers on the dance floor, top, then falling as the floor gives way, middle. Bewildered bystanders look into the gaping hole, bottom.

JERUSALEM -- Hopes are fading as rescuers search for more survivors in the debris of a building that collapsed during a wedding banquet in Jerusalem, killing at least 25 people.

CNN's Ben Wedeman says between 10 and 20 people at the reception are still unaccounted for, and hopes are fading that rescuers will find any more survivors.

The fourth floor collapsed under the festivities just after Assi and Keren Sror became husband and wife at the Versailles wedding hall and hundreds of guests streamed on the dance floor.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert told CNN he expected the search and rescue to continue for three or four more days.

As rescue workers dug for survivors in the mangled debris, officials questioned the building owners and engineers amid mounting suspicion that shoddy construction caused the collapse.

Police investigating the incident brought in eight people -- including the owner, an engineer, a designer and a contractor -- on Friday.

Heavy equipment was brought in to dig through the rubble, but workers were also using their bare hands. Sensitive listening equipment was being used in hopes of directing rescue teams to buried survivors.

The rescue teams have had to work under harrowing conditions. Unstable concrete slabs dangled above their heads. Workers have been pulled from the building at times to stabilize the structure.

In a Friday morning interview with CNN, Olmert said authorities estimate some 650 people were in the hall at the time. He said he expected the search and rescue to continue for three or four more days.

Police said the collapse was caused by a structural failure and not a terrorist act. Olmert said forensic investigators had found nothing inside the building to suggest the disaster was the result of a bomb or a terrorist act.

Among the injured were the newlyweds. Assi was treated for minor injuries and released. But Keren, carried out on a stretcher in her white dress, suffered hip and chest injuries and might need surgery, doctors said.

Alisa Sror, the mother of the groom, said she had just congratulated her son when the floors opened up. "The wall collapsed on them, the floor, the tables," she said from her hospital bed.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent his condolences and promised a thorough investigation.

The Palestinian Authority expressed its "deep sorrow" to the Israeli government and offered to help with the rescue work. The gesture came at a time of bitter conflict and new violence between the two sides.

The special Israeli army rescue unit that has been sent abroad in the past to dig out earthquake victims in India and Turkey was working at the scene.

Soldiers in yellow helmets used bulldozers, cranes and conveyer belt to pull out the larger pieces of rubble and metal shards from the cavernous hole, but the mounds of debris were so unstable they tumbled at the touch of heavy machinery.

Public Security Minister Uzi Landau said a committee of experts would be formed to investigate the cause.

The building was constructed in 1986. Olmert said his preliminary examination of the building file disclosed findings "that trouble me very much."

The Standards Institution of Israel warned that other buildings were in danger of collapse because of negligence.

Ziza Patir, head of the institute, said she believed the hall was built using a cheaper, lightweight construction method common in the 1980s that was below building standards.

The method, which uses metal plates and thinner layers of cement than standard ceilings, was barred in 1996, she said.

Rescue workers searched for survivors and removed bodies from the remains of the building through the night and into Friday. Seven or eight bodies were pulled from the rubble on Friday morning, CNN's Ben Wedeman reports.

The hall, which hosts other large events such as discos, is in the Talpiot industrial area in south-east Jerusalem, home to a number of nightclubs.


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