The following story dramatizes how the Turning Point 2 preparedness drill unfolded at Ben-Gurion Elementary School on Rehov Poale Harakevet in Givatayim on Tuesday, April 8, between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.
Amit powers past two defenders, passes the ball to Roei, who fakes, then takes a shot from inside the circle. The ball bounces off the rim, but Amit is there to pick up the rebound. Roei circles round as Doron blocks another defender.
Amit and Roei try the routine again: Again it doesn’t go in, and this time the opposing team picks up the rebound.
All around the six older boys, many of the school’s other 331 pupils are at play. Two girls, holding hands, skip past two others who are hugging and singing. Two other girls are tormenting a younger boy, taking his left leg, then his right leg, and teaching him how they think he should walk.
Some of the older girls, in their very early teens, are singing, and one even has the gall to ask another if she brushed her teeth this morning, “Oh my God, your breath stinks,” she chuckles, and all four girls giggle.
Four 10-year-old boys race each other from one end of the playground to the other. In the other direction, little Tomer outruns a girl twice his size.
Two scruffy-looking boys are playing a soccer penalty shootout with a small rock, but it hurts their feet too much for the game to go on for long. In any case, the bell rings and everyone rushes to class.
But before they can even catch their breath, a siren goes off. A few seconds go by, then Daphna the principal’s voice comes over the PA system: “This is not a drill, everyone has one minute to get to the bomb shelters. Go!”
A teacher in a class of six-year-olds says calmly: “Remember how we prepared for this? We’re ready. Now, like big children I want you to line up, hold hands and follow me. Remember to play the sweet music in your head that we talked about.”
The little ones file out of the class, down the hall and into the closest shelter, where they are sat down in small groups and handed a single coloring-in page with pictures of animals and people, the headline of which is “Once we were slaves in Egypt.”
The other classes – there are 15 in this school in a middle-class neighborhood of Givatayim, plus two special-needs classes – are also filing out toward the bomb shelters, one on the left side of the school (the arts class shelter) and one on the right (the day-care shelter). The younger children are more disciplined and follow closely behind their teachers. The slightly older ones, aged 10 to 13, run and jump down the stairs, some wildly. The teachers are everywhere: Only they know the school inside-out, which students are brave, and which are nervous. In a time of crisis, the teachers are key.
The older kids have previously been organized into three groups: ushers, firefighters and scouts. The ushers take up positions on the routes from the classrooms to the shelters, on every corner and at the top and bottom of every staircase. Shuki, the school’s security officer, dispatches the scouts, chosen from the school’s swiftest runners, who sprint across the entire building to see that nobody has been left behind inside a class or in the bathrooms, or has fallen in some corner.
Everyone has to be in the shelters.
All seems to going smoothly when, suddenly, a massive explosion is heard and the building shakes violently, as if it’s been hit by an earthquake. A missile has smashed into the northeast side of the school on the top floor: the science lab.
The shock is immediate. The air fills with smoke. Some of the kids running toward the shelters lose their balance and crash into the walls, hitting their heads, which begin to bleed. Others who are running down the stairs fall over the railings and break their limbs; some begin to cry; others lose consciousness.
A team of older boys rush to the staircase with stretchers and bandages. Well-trained in first aid, they bandage the bleeding areas first, and then move the wounded children very carefully onto stretchers, tying them tightly to the arms of the stretchers, before carrying the casualties to a safer space.
Now word spreads that several children and a teacher are trapped inside the science lab, their condition unknown. The lab may be on fire but the door is jammed. Within minutes the school is swarming with police and Magen David Adom ambulances and paramedics, Givatayim Fire and Rescue teams, and dozens of soldiers from the Dan Region Home Front Command, led by Col. Tzviki Tessler.
The fire teams divide into two: one team races toward the science lab, while the other brings out ladders, hammers and hoses and makes its way up the exterior of the building. Older boys pull gym mattresses underneath the fire ladder.
Smoke is billowing out of the lab and several children can be seen at the window, looking through the bars in hysterics. The interior fire team breaks through the lab door, but can’t take the kids back down as the fire is spreading. So the kids are brought out through the window. The wounded are taken to the ambulances around the corner.
Tessler makes contact with Principal Daphna and security officer Shuki. While most schools have drilled only once or twice since the end of the Second Lebanon War, they’ve practiced these kinds of scenarios together about six times in the past 18 months. Tessler is legally the man in charge, but it is Shuki and Daphna who really run the show.
Ten minutes have passed since the siren blared and the radio stations have started reporting on the missile strike at an educational facility in Givatayim. Within another 20 minutes, hundreds of frantic parents are expected to descend on the school and screamingly demand to take their children home.
First on the scene is Carol Admoni, a native of Scotland who has lived in Israel for 20 years, lives nearby and has two children here. She makes a beeline for the main entrance, where she is met by three teachers who have set up a Parent Information Center. Each teacher has class lists showing which child has gone to which shelter. (The ushers have called out the names in each of the shelters to make sure all the children are where they should be. Their lists were then given to the teachers at the Parent Information Center.)
Carol gives her name and the names of her two kids, Gilad and Noah. The teachers check their lists. Noah is in the arts shelter and Gilad is in the day-care shelter. Carol is given a “permission to remove child” note for each and directions to both shelters.
Even though she knows the school’s layout well from previous drills, Carol, in the panic and stress, is momentarily confused and doesn’t know which shelter to go to first.
When she gets to the day-care shelter, she shows her “permission” slip to a teacher inside. The teacher looks at Carol, looks at the note, signs it, and calls Gilad, who rushes to hug his mother. The shelter is packed with kids, who have been given crayons and drawing tasks. A radio is on; the telephone is working.
Carol moves quickly to the arts shelter and collects Noah via the same procedure. Clutching her two children and still holding the two slips, she heads back to the main entrance and out of the gate, where dozens of other parents are now starting to collect, demanding to get into the school. Policemen and school guards are trying to keep them out.
Dozens of additional parents soon arrive and people become frantic, with police only allowing a trickle into the school. The law states that the children are under the protection and authority of the school while they are on school grounds. It is for the teachers, together with the security officer [who liaises with Tessler], to decide if and when it is safe for the parents to come in and get them.
Miri Parhi of the Givatayim Municipality’s Social Service Department gathers her team of social workers and has them fan out along the school entrance gate to talk to frantic parents – giving them water, trying to calm them down.
Saving lives and treating the wounded is the No. 1 priority. Stopping the spread of panic and disorder comes in a close second.
Tempers rise. Parhi and her team manage to calm some parents, but not all.
Police and Home Front Command specialists – trained in social and psychological methods – move in to help out.
Little by little, parents and children emerge from the school.
Other social workers move into neighboring buildings and start knocking on doors to see if anyone there needs help. The social workers have lists of every elderly, disabled and needy person in the neighborhood and they head to them first. Luckily, none of the surrounding buildings has been hit; luckily, too, the missile that hit the school carried only a conventional warhead.
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i, who happens to be in the area, arrives at the school, is swarmed by reporters, and gets in Shuki’s way in one of the corridors. After a few minutes and a few sound bites, he leaves.
Shuki waits for Tessler to tell him that there are no more missiles on the way, and that the wounded can now be taken to the hospitals and the rest of the children brought out of the shelters.
Surveying the orderly flow of rescue teams, teachers and students, Tessler breathes a sigh of relief. What is by definition a balagan [pandemonium] has been managed without too many mishaps, largely because this school has drilled so often in the past. Tessler knows that not all schools are this well practiced. He also knows that many schools don’t have bomb shelters large enough to hold all of their students.
If other schools are hit today, in what has been a surprise missile attack on Israel’s home front, his permanent forces units will be overwhelmed, and he will need a very rapid injection of reserve soldiers serving in the Home Front Command.
But his sense of relief may have proved premature: Now Tessler gets a report of a possible terror attack on a school in Jaffa. Day six of the Turning Point war isn’t over yet.