Israeli emergency workers tell of horror after Bulgaria bombing

By Nathan Jeffay, July 26, 2012
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“When we arrived, people saw that help from Israel was here and started hugging us,” said Mati Goldstein. “It was very emotional.”

For hours after last week’s bomb attack in Burgas, 70 Israelis who had been on and around buses during the explosion sat, shocked, in Sarafovo Airport. As six bodies lay outside, 34 people were in hospital, and local authorities sought to secure the area, the survivors had no idea what to do with themselves.

Mr Goldstein is the chief officer of the international response unit at Zaka, an Israeli medical and rescue organisation. His unit has a five-strong team constantly on call, with equipment in their houses. They can be at Ben Gurion Airport within an hour of a call — as they were after the Bulgaria attack, awaiting a private jet hired by a donor.

The Zaka officers helped to calm the Israelis at Sarafovo Airport who had greeted them so enthusiastically and, together with Israeli officials and other organisations, attended to their material needs. They also helped arrange for a flight to take them back to Israel in the morning.

But their main task was the most harrowing job of the bomb’s aftermath — to transfer the bodies into coffins for burial, and collect all the body parts and match them with the correct body. “We got there and saw two burned buses, bodies, body parts, flesh — everything was still there as it was when it happened,” said Mr Goldstein.

The local authorities do not have experience with terror attacks and were initially reluctant to allow things to be moved on the scene. “We had to convince the officials to let us cover the bodies to give them proper respect,” said Mr Goldstein. Soon afterwards, permission was given for the collection of body parts, and the Zaka team began its long task as Foreign Ministry, Israel Defence Forces and Magen David Adom staff cared for the hospitalised and arranged for their airlift back to Israel.

Mr Goldstein has led missions to the scenes of tragedies across the world, including Toulouse, Haiti, Mumbai and Japan.

“I do the job the best I can and try to put my emotions to the side,” he said.

Last updated: 2:14pm, July 26 2012