It has been almost a year since a suicide bomber stood in line outside the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv and blew himself up along with 21 Israelis, almost all teenage girls. Leanora Bachar, a social worker who rushed to care for the families of victims that night, still gets emotional when she thinks about it.
"I actually heard the blast," Bachar said. "I live fairly close and my house shook, so I knew it was a bomb."
She called the Tel Aviv municipality, where she is a unit supervisor in the city’s emergency treatment system that responds to major terrorist attacks, and was told to rush to the Forensic Center at Abu Kabir, which houses the morgue.
"There were young people at the Dolphinarium," Bachar, 58, recalled.
"All were about the same age. There were a lot of bodies brought there and it was very hard to distinguish [them]. If you know about teenagers, you know they dress alike and look alike and most were Russians. So from the point of view of the Forensic Center, it was one of the hardest identifications to do. We were there for 24 hours, maybe a little more [before identifications were completed]."
A similar problem occurred earlier this month in identifying the 15 Israelis killed by another suicide bomber in an illegal gambling hall in Rishon Le Zion, just south of Tel Aviv. The force of the blast ripped limbs and other body parts from many victims.
The seder massacre in Netanya March 27 was equally devastating. It took more than 80 hours to complete identifications of many of the 29 people killed in the suicide bombing.
And on Sunday, two emergency response teams were sent to Abu Kabir and a third to Ichlov Hospital in Tel Aviv, where some of those injured in a suicide bombing in Netanya were treated for head injuries.
The Forensic Center, a three-story building on the border of Jaffa and Tel Aviv, is ground zero for the families of those who have been killed in the wave of terror attacks that have gripped Israel since September 2000. And while countless words have been written about the lives of those injured and killed in the attacks (and even the lives of the suicide bombers) there has been little focus on those who support the families in distress. They are among the unsung heroes of Israelís fight against terrorism.
Meggie Navon, an aide to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, said that because the Forensic Center is the only one in Israel, the bodies of all those in the country who die an unnatural death (including terror victims) must be brought there. But she said the center was not equipped to handle the nearly 500 Israelis who have been killed in terror attacks since the Palestinian violence began 20 months ago.
"To work at the center, you need to be both a doctor and a lawyer," she said. "I talked to one doctor [after the seder massacre] who said she had 18 legs and didn’t know which leg belonged to whom. So she took DNA from each of them and then tried to match the leg to the body."
To help with that job, all 12 doctors from the center were called in. In addition, pathologists were mobilized from the city’s municipal hospital, Ichlov, and other nearby hospitals. Once the parts were matched with the bodies, they were sewn together.
"We don’t use coffins, just shrouds [for burial], so we have to have the body whole," Navon explained.
While all of this was going on, the emergency response team was outside to meet arriving family members and take them to a nearby building at the center normally used by secretarial and support staff. The families rush to the morgue, Huldai said, to learn if family members are there, "and somebody has to be there for them."
Those who come "usually have checked hospitals and know their loved one was supposed to be where the [terrorist attack] occurred," Bachar said. "Unfortunately, most of the people who come do find their loved ones there."
Due to the frequency of the terrorist attacks over the last 20 months, Huldai said psychologists have also begun counseling staff at the Forensic Center to help them cope with the magnitude of what has been happening.
The city created the emergency response teams during the Gulf War in 1991 when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, some of which damaged scores of homes throughout Tel Aviv.
There are now six emergency response teams with rotating hours; two are on duty at any given time of the day or night. Each team consists of 10 social workers, psychologists, nurses, one doctor and a paraprofessional in the social service field.
Huldai noted that the response team often helps victims’ families handle funeral and shiva arrangements. And in the case of new immigrants who arrived with little money and no family here, Huldai said the city has also paid for their funerals.
Although the Israeli government pays for the staff of the Forensic Center, Huldai said the Tel Aviv municipality picks up the $1.5 million budget of the city’s emergency response system. That includes having people go door-to-door in neighborhoods near terrorist attacks to ensure that everyone is OK.
"We once found a very old lady who was sitting there in shock and we had to help her," Huldai recalled.
Robert Schrayer, national campaign chairman of the United Jewish Communities, said that at his suggestion the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, of which he is a former president, last month allocated $300,000 to help Tel Aviv bear the extra expense.
"We’re hoping the Chicago model will be a catalyst for other communities," said Huldai.
Bachar, whose normal job is coordinator of youth and children’s activities in the Social Services Department of the Tel Aviv municipality, helped comfort an immigrant couple from the former Soviet Union the night of the Dolphinarium suicide bombing. Their daughter had been at the disco. A 14- or 15-year-old girl accompanied the parents and acted as their translator.
"Our job is to listen to the family and make sure they are fed, given drinks, provided a blanket if they feel cold, and to call anybody they wish," said Bachar. "These people asked for nothing. When I thought they needed food and water, I brought it. They ate and drank, but the girl didn’t touch anything. At one point I asked the mother something [about the bombing] and she said, ‘Why don’t you ask her, she was there?’ At that point I realized that [the girl] had been there and had seen her best friend blown up."
Bachar said she then called over a psychologist to talk to the girl.
"She was not catatonic," Bachar said. "I don’t know what she was going through. I think she was in shock. I’m a professional social worker and have been in this field many years, but there was something about that young girl who had come to help the parents of her best friend after experiencing one of the most horrendous things in life."
By the next afternoon, when the medical examiner’s office summoned the parents to identify their daughter’s body, the mother went to make the identification. Bachar said she accompanied her to the room but did not go in herself. Inside the room were a doctor, a policeman and a rabbi, who is there to affirm that the identification was made in accordance with Jewish law.
In some cases, identification can be made only through dental records or jewelry.
"When the mother came out, she broke down," Bachar said. "There is a long path to where the father was waiting and when he saw his wife crying, he [looked at me and] started screaming: ‘Get that witch away from me.’ He didn’t want to know. I had gone with her to make the identification, therefore I was the bearer of the news."
"It was very hard," said Bachar, choking up as she recalled the incident. "It was the 10th time I had been to [the Forensic Center to respond to a terrorist attack] and that had never happened before. I must admit it left me a little shaky."
The Israel Crisis Management Center, which also had a team of Russian-speaking social workers at the Forensic Center, helped her to comfort the couple. The center, which oversees a volunteer network of people who provide assistance to new immigrants faced with a sudden crisis, including those who have been victims of Palestinian violence, has received grants totaling $200,000 from UJA-Federation of New York since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
Last month, UJA-Federation presented a check for $800,000 to the newly formed Israel Trauma Coalition, which coordinates trauma relief services throughout the country.
As she reflected on her experience that day with the Russian couple, Bachar said she had bonded with the family.
"They had told me about their daughter’s room and what she liked to eat," she said. "I felt I knew her."