Seventeen years ago, two IDF helicopters crashed into one another, killing 73 Israeli soldiers.
The crash, still cited as the greatest disaster in Israeli Air Force history, took place in northern Israel on February 4, 1997. The two Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallions were en route to Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon, intent on protecting Israelis along the Lebanese border.
The effect of the crash on the national psyche was immediate. Flags were lowered to half staff, Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended scores of funerals, and thousands gathered at the Kotel to pray. February 6 was made a national day of mourning.
At the Knesset, Netanyahu addressed the government, quoting the words of King David: “Thy beauty, O Israel, upon thy high places is slain!”
“We are still shocked by the blow dealt us, as our national pain is felt as individual pain,” Netanyahu said.
“Because we cannot, for a single moment, escape the pain of the grieving families who are bearing the same awful grief that the prophet Jeremiah called an extraordinary grief — the grief of a father and mother for their only son which is, perhaps, the most profound human tragedy.”
Then Chief of Staff head Amnon Lipkin-Shahak had the dreary task of confirming in a news conference reports of the deaths, which included 13 officers and 60 soldiers.
“This is the heaviest national tragedy that has ever befallen the Israel Defense Forces,” Shahak said. “We have lost the finest of men who defend the security of the north with their bodies and who had been on their way to carry this out.”
Following the crash, a task force was organized to investigate the source of the accident. No known cause was detected.
On the tenth anniversary of the crash, mystery still shrouded the disaster. A senior IAF officer noted that, even a decade later, the danger that IAF soldiers face cannot be prevented.
“Even today it would be impossible to completely prevent a big disaster in the skies,” the officer said. “After the helicopter disaster the Air Force underwent a makeover…Despite all this, one must remember that there are always human errors, and in this field, any mistake is fatal.”
Still, the memories of the 73 lost soldiers have not been forgotten. Their sacrifice is remembered today through a series of monuments and memorials across the Jewish state.