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Pride Turns to Grief and Disbelief in Israel

Times Staff Writer

On Jan. 16, Israelis watched with a glow of pride as the country’s first astronaut soared into space aboard the shuttle Columbia. On Saturday, there was a national outpouring of grief and disbelief over the deaths of Ilan Ramon and his six American shipmates in the craft’s fiery disintegration moments before it was to have touched down.

In bars and cafes, in synagogues and on street corners, Israelis wept and embraced one another as word spread in the near-instantaneous fashion that is one of tragedy’s unvarying hallmarks in this small, close-knit country.

For Israelis, left scarred and sorrowful by 2 1/2 years of wrenching conflict with the Palestinians, the loss of a national hero -- and a proud occasion’s sudden veer from joy to catastrophe -- was a heavy blow to bear.

“What a land of disaster we live in!” lamented 25-year-old Tel Aviv waiter Alon Ovadia, wiping glasses as he and a small knot of customers clustered around a radio, listening as the news went from bad to worse to the worst. “It seems the little light we have here is turning to darkness.”

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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon watched the unfolding tragedy from his sheep ranch in the Negev desert. “The state of Israel and its citizens are as one at this difficult time,” he said in a statement.

Later, President Bush telephoned Sharon for what became a mutual exchange of condolences -- Bush expressing sorrow over Ramon’s death, Sharon asking the president to send sympathies to the families of the American astronauts.

“Let us pray together and support each other,” the Israeli leader told Bush.

When the spacecraft broke up at an altitude of more than 200,000 feet in the clear blue sky over Texas, Israeli news stations were already broadcasting live from Cape Canaveral, Fla., ready to carry scenes of the landing.

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In the studios of Israel’s Channel Two, Ramon’s white-haired father, 79-year-old Eliezer Wolferman, had a happy and anticipatory expression as the mission’s final moments ticked away.

Suddenly, the correspondent at Cape Canaveral broke in, looking tense.

Communications with the shuttle had been lost, he said, and there appeared to be a serious problem. The camera lingered for a moment on Wolferman, wearing a look of confusion and dread, before quickly cutting away.

Sharon later called Ramon’s father, who told the prime minister, “I am trying to come to terms with the fact that my son has died carrying out his mission.” Weeping almost too hard to be understood, Ramon’s brother-in-law, Gabi Bar, told Israel Radio, “I cannot believe this has happened.”

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The deaths drew expressions of sympathy from the Palestinians -- ordinary citizens as well as the government of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

“We are shocked at the news,” said Yasser Abed-Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister. “We sympathize with the families of the astronauts.”

Few Israeli news reports failed to note the bizarre detail that the shuttle’s breakup, which scattered debris for hundreds of miles, could be seen in the small town of Palestine, Texas.

Ramon’s wife, Rona, and their four young children had been at Cape Canaveral for the landing, waiting excitedly along with the other astronauts’ families.

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As soon as it became clear that something had gone wrong, NASA quickly ushered them all into seclusion.

The start of Columbia’s mission Jan. 16 had been greeted by a wave of excitement in Israel. Photos of the boyish-looking Ramon adorned every newspaper’s front page; schoolchildren learned about the scientific experiments he would conduct in orbit.

On liftoff day, a TV commentary said that sending the first Israeli into space was a “fulfillment of everybody’s dreams.”

The disaster occurred at 4 p.m. Israeli time, little more than an hour before the end of the Jewish Sabbath.

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Many secular Israelis were relaxing at home with snacks and sports broadcasts; the religiously observant were finishing their prayers.

One radio station interrupted a popular weekly soccer roundup to broadcast the first word of a potential problem with the shuttle.

Outside a synagogue in one old Jerusalem neighborhood, a passerby asked emerging worshipers, “Have you not heard?” -- then told them it appeared that the shuttle, and Israel’s astronaut, had been lost.

On the boulevards of Tel Aviv, idling taxis left their doors and windows wide open so that radio news bulletins could be heard by those passing by on the sidewalks.

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In between news broadcasts, Israeli stations played mournful music -- also the usual practice in the wake of a suicide bombing or some other serious attack.

The 48-year-old Ramon was a colonel in the air force, a veteran of two of the country’s wars. He was part of the elite flight team that, in one of Israel’s most daring missions, bombed Iraq’s unfinished nuclear reactor in 1981 to prevent the development of a nuclear arsenal in that country.

The son of a Holocaust survivor -- his mother emerged alive from the Auschwitz death camp -- Ramon had approached Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, to borrow items of particular symbolic value to take with him on his space mission.

One was a tiny Torah scroll that had been secreted away by a young Jewish boy during the Holocaust; another was a line drawing titled “Moonscape” -- an imagined view of outer space by a 14-year-old boy who was incarcerated in the Theresienstadt camp and died at Auschwitz.

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President Moshe Katsav gave Ramon a tiny microfiche of the Bible to take with him, and some mezuzot, small cylinders containing biblical inscriptions, which Jews traditionally hang on the door frames of their new homes.

Selected as a shuttle payload specialist in 1997, Ramon enthusiastically adopted his second career, training for years for this chance to travel into space.

During the Columbia mission, he carried out environmental experiments for Israel’s space agency that were meant to discover how desert dust and other contaminants in the atmosphere affect rainfall and temperature.

As the evening wore on, Israeli television stations carried hours of coverage of the disaster, showing footage from the mission and the days preceding it. A smiling Ramon posed with fellow crew members, floated weightless and wide-eyed, ate kosher food and celebrated the Sabbath in space, and talked by video hookup to loved ones.

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A grieving high school friend of Ramon, Ronit Federman, talked about the e-mails she had received from him over the last two weeks.

“I’m sure he was the happiest of men in his last moments,” she told Israel’s Channel 10 television. “He wrote about the divine happiness of looking at Earth. He wrote that he would like to keep floating for the rest of his life.”

Those who had not known Ramon mourned him as well. Eli Nadesh, who runs a lottery-ticket kiosk, was red-eyed as he served his customers on a darkening Jerusalem street.

“We are all crying,” he said. “For one of our own, and for the Americans too.”

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Researcher Tami Zer in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.


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