‘Saving Lives Is Just Something That’s in Our Blood’

By Eric Silver, Mideast Correspondent

Gil Wiener, the husky soldier who dragged out the first survivor of the Nairobi bombing to be saved by the Israeli dog squad last weekend, is a 29-year-old architecture student working his way through college as a lifeguard at the Hebrew University swimming pool in Jerusalem.

Like him, most of the 170 skilled officers and men who flew to the Kenyan capital within 24 hours of the explosion that wrecked the U.S. Embassy are reservists. They are recruited from all branches of the armed forces during the last year of their three-year compulsory service and trained on simulated disaster sites. Back in civilian life, the volunteers are annually called up for one week of intensive refresher courses. A permanent-alert staff is primed to mobilize them at short notice.

“My men are not the strongest soldiers in the army,” the commander of their training base, Maj. Ronen Greenberg, said this week, “but they have to be pretty strong — and they have to have a talent for technology. They must know how to handle sophisticated equipment, and how to fix it quickly if it malfunctions during an emergency.”

They are taught patience and extreme caution. Gil Wiener and his team kept their Kenyan survivor talking for six hours before they got him out of his steel-and-concrete trap. Their commander insisted that they work only from the side and above. Although the man had an almost severed leg and head injuries, rushing the operation might have brought tons of rubble down on rescued and rescuers.

The emergency unit was established during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon after an explosion demolished an army administrative block in the port city of Tyre, killing 89 soldiers and secret service agents. Since then, it has seen service at home and on humanitarian missions on three continents.

It rescued Israeli civilians from Tel Aviv flats hit by Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War. In the mid and late 1980s, it joined the hunt for survivors of massive earthquakes in Mexico and Armenia and flew in food, tents and medical supplies. In 1994, the unit extricated dead and wounded from the four-story Israeli Embassy building blown up by Islamic fanatics in Buenos Aires. The army also sent a medical-aid team, protected by 270 infantrymen, to Rwanda during the 1994 civil war, and firefighting helicopters to help put out a huge blaze at a Turkish arms factory in 1997.

Defense Ministry officials in Tel Aviv hailed the Nairobi mission as a debt of honor. Kenya joined most African states in cutting diplomatic relations with Israel after it invaded Egypt, a fellow African country, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But Kenya maintained close economic links with the Jewish state. Hundreds of Israeli specialists worked on industrial and agricultural development projects there. Kenyan managers and technicians studied in Israel.

In July 1976, Kenya secretly allowed Israeli transport planes to refuel in Nairobi after their epic rescue of hijacked airline passengers from neighboring Entebbe. Ehud Barak, now leader of the Labor opposition, commanded the Nairobi backup group.

Some of the team sent back to the Kenyan capital this weekend are veterans of the Buenos Aires and Armenian operations. They are among the least flamboyant of Israeli soldiers. They expect to bring out more dead than alive. It is a sobering thought.

When the Nairobi crowd lauded Gil Wiener on Saturday night, he remonstrated: “I’m no hero.” Another rescuer said: “Saving lives is just something that’s in our blood.” During that first rescue, the survivor, Sammy Ngana, was suffering so much pain that he begged the Israelis to let him die. “I’m a doctor,” said Lt. Nahum Nesher, one of the team. “I won’t let you die.”

The men do their job, with no time for sentiment. Greenberg, the chief instructor, confided that during 10 years as a rescuer, he experienced only one “happy ending.” He located an elderly woman trapped in a Tel Aviv flat shattered by one of Saddam’s Scuds. “While we were trying to get her out,” he said, “I asked her about other people who might still be in the building. A year later, she spotted me at an army exhibition. She remembered every question, word for word. I hadn’t even recognized her.”