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Bomb Shelter Saves Patients in Israeli Hospital

NAHARIYA, Israel — Some might call it luck that the worst rocket attack on Nahariya’s Western Galilee Hospital in 25 years caused no casualties. But Deputy Director Moshe Daniel insists it was foresight that saved lives in the July 28 attack.

That’s because slightly more than two weeks earlier, 180 patients — expectant mothers, newborns, children, the elderly and the bed ridden — were evacuated to the hospital’s bombproof underground shelter, the only one of its kind in an Israeli hospital.

Their move, made after Daniel was warned by the army at 1 a.m. of imminent rocket barrages, took place just 24 hours after Hezbollah’s cross-border raid and its kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. Since then, the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah has resulted in tens of rockets landing just outside the hospital’s fence, their shrapnel hurled inside the campus.

“Hezbollah has been targeting the hospital since the beginning, but we’ve been prepared for this,” said 60-year-old Daniel, a veteran of three Israeli wars, in an interview. The hospital, about six miles from Lebanon, can be seen clearly from the border, he added.

The preparation paid off last Friday, when the institution took its first direct hit. At 4:50 p.m., a rocket slammed through the window of the eye department on the surgical wing’s fourth floor. The explosion blew off doors, twisted wall panels, scattered glass shards and left piles of rubble — more than a foot deep in some places.

The force of the blast reached as far as the first floor of a nearby wing, strewing glass fragments on the bed where an on-duty doctor was napping during a break.

The narrow escape from tragedy grabbed media attention both in Israel and abroad. Interest was especially strong because the hospital, based in this Mediterranean coastal city of 50,000, has become the front-line medical facility for soldiers and residents of the surrounding Western Galilee. The institution has treated 959 Israelis, including more than 60 soldiers, since the fighting began.

The underground warren of shelters, though never used before, had been prepared decades in advance. The idea was born in 1981, when three employees were wounded after rockets hit the hospital, landing near the maternity ward. Fortunately, the female patients were in the dining room at the time. Some returned to find their beds covered in glass and shrapnel.

The 450-bed underground complex was Daniel’s brainchild. He modeled it after a similar facility at a hospital in Buffalo, N.Y., his wife’s hometown, from where he said patients were evacuated during harsh snowstorms. In Nahariya, he thought, it could be used against missiles or bombs.

“We thought we’d never have to use it. But we kept it nice and clean,” said Daniel, who had been decorated during his military service for treating 60 soldiers under fire. “We could go on for months in here,” he added.

The government-funded hospital — initially built on an old olive grove and designed as a childbirth center — created the underground labyrinth of rooms and tunnels in the early 1990s at a cost of about $4.5 million. But until now, it’s only been used for linen deliveries and for garbage pickups, as well as for disaster simulation drills.

The complex has about a dozen rooms — some as small as classrooms and others as large as lecture halls. Several are protected against chemical and biological attacks.

The tunnels connecting the rooms are big enough for ambulances to ferry patients from a helicopter landing pad outside. Unlike the air conditioned rooms, the tunnels feel warm and stifling, their faded yellow walls stained and their floors cracked. Pipes from which water, gas and electricity flow are located inside the thick walls.

The underground facility includes a crowded emergency area with barely any room to maneuver around its 20 beds. Eight bombproof operating rooms are located right above, protected by 23-inch-thick reinforced concrete walls.

Downstairs, most patients fill a large room as big as an Olympic-size pool. The wards are separated by only a thin partition marked by a printed sign. The curtainless beds provide little privacy.

The room is full of activity. Some patients chatter loudly with visiting relatives, while others quietly read newspapers or sleep under blue blankets. Jewish and Arab patients lie next to each other, as they do above the ground during less intense times.

Boris Naor, whose face is dotted with stitches and drying wounds while his arm and leg are wrapped with bandages, said he feels safer underground. Naor was injured when a rocket fell through the roof of his house and into his living room. Four chips of concrete from his living room wall had to be extracted from his arm.

A nearby room holds hospital staff members’ children who have nowhere to go because summer camps have been canceled. Inside, infants play in cribs while small children sit around low tables or on mattresses, some clapping and singing. They’ve been entertained in recent weeks by an Irish folk singer and a clown.

Close by, a makeshift pediatric ward attempts a cheery atmosphere, with colorful walls and bed sheets and animal-shaped helium balloons bobbing near the ceiling. While the children inside play, some visiting parents express discomfort with their being underground.

“There isn’t enough air or light down here, and you can’t tell day from night,” said Shwokat Mary, 34, a resident of a border Druze village. He was visiting his 6-year-old son, who injured his right hand after falling as he tried to escape a rocket that landed in the village.

But comfortable or not, the shelters have spared lives.

While many northern Israeli residents have fled south for safety, hospital staff members risk their lives daily just to get to and from work. Spokeswoman Judith Jochnowitz had to stop her car in an Arab village one evening and hide in between buildings after rockets flew over it. A maternity nurse, amid rocket attacks one day, abandoned her car and dove into a nearby ditch.

To help reduce staffers’ stress, a center set up at the hospital by volunteers offers them massages, zone therapy, shiatsu and other treatments in a room filled with lighted and scented candles.

But for Daniel, who himself had a near miss with a rocket while driving, those hardships are anything but discouraging. His biggest worry, he said, is that Israel will cease its operations in Lebanon, widely supported among the Israeli population, because of international criticism.

“I’m sorry about what happened in Qana,” Daniel said, referring to the southern Lebanese town where dozens of civilians were killed this week after an Israeli air strike. “But I hope it won’t result in us stopping our fighting against Lebanon’s Al Qaeda.”

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