Israelis marvel at 'miracles' of escape Tales of luck follow low toll from bombs WAR IN THE GULF


TEL AVIV, Israel -- A thunderclap snapped so fiercely and suddenly from clear air one recent night it was the talk of Tel Aviv the next morning.

To Francine Zaretsky, the thunder spoke to her.

"I had a feeling that there was a shouting from the sky. I really felt that somebody was trying to tell me we should not be home," she said.

Mrs. Zaretsky and her husband are both lawyers, not given to acting on supernatural signs. But Yehuda Zaretsky humored his wife's premonition and agreed to move with their two young sons for the night to a friend's house a few blocks away.

At 2 a.m. the next morning, an Iraqi missile landed beside their house. The roof and ceiling collapsed in a heap of rubble on the children's room, where they would have been sleeping.

"We are in a world that does not believe so much in miracles," Mrs. Zaretsky said. "But there's no other way to explain it."

Israelis are finding time and again that the power of a miracle is the only useful answer to why there has not been greater tragedy here.

The Scud missiles still are coming, if less often. They fall in whole or in parts on the homes of Tel Aviv. Rescue workers rush to find a hellish scene of roofs and walls blown away, crumpled houses, cars and apartments ablaze. Then they pull people from the rubble to find them largely unhurt.

The next day the world press notes briefly in passing that a Scud attack on Israel caused minor injuries. The Israelis shake their heads at yet another narrow escape.

"Luck. Sheer luck," said an army colonel, when pressed for a military explanation as to why there had been so few fatalities.

The most recent attacks last Monday and Saturday caused extensive damage to dozens of apartments and homes. The papers Tuesday carried dramatic photos of Michael Duer, 30, a bookbinder, buried to his neck in the rubble of his home.

He was dug out "without a scratch," he related yesterday. "There was just a little space created from the way the walls and the ceiling beams fell," he said. "I found myself standing in that space, with my head outside." Photographers on the scene found him.

Only two people have died directly from the impact of the 33 missiles that have been fired toward Israel. At least two others have died of heart attacks from an explosion nearby.

Some missiles have missed populated areas entirely, and some have been destroyed by Patriot defensive rockets. But about half the 13 attacks have scored, and missile warheads have exploded in populated areas even if knocked awry by a Patriot.

Accounts of incredible fortune now are almost routine.

Yohanan Ascher, 73, walked out of his bathroom just moments before a missile brought a huge slab of tiled roof crashing into the room. He was with his wife in another room, and suddenly "everything went black. A piece of wood hit my head. I looked at my wife, and she was full of blood."

They struggled out of the debris to find the room they were in was the only room not completely destroyed.

Mr. Ascher's son rushed to the scene moments after the couple were taken to the hospital. Adi Ascher dug frantically at the rubble, certain his parents were killed. But their injuries were minor cuts, and a few days later the senior Mr. Ascher showed a reporter the remains of his home.

"No one can believe I wasn't in there," he said of the pile of destruction. "Why? You can't explain it."

Shiman Zagorski, 54, a truck driver, was tired of the regular air raid alerts and considered staying in his bed on the Friday night he heard the siren. But his daughters cajoled him -- "They were shouting at me to be smart," he recalled -- so he joined them in a downstairs bomb shelter. The room he left was destroyed.

Lorna Miller, on the other hand, was so troubled by the air raid sirens she could not sleep. So she fled to Jerusalem, immune from the attacks thus far, to relax for a few nights.

She returned to find a Scud had punched a hole in her roof and destroyed her home.

"I don't even like to think what would have happened to us," she said, as workers salvaged a few pieces of furniture before authorities razed the home.

The low death toll is partly explained by the relatively small size of the Scud warhead. Because of the long distance the missiles must fly, Iraq can pack only about 500 pounds of explosives in them.

Even if the warhead is exploded by Patriots, damage can be done by the falling debris of the heavy, 36-foot-long Scud.

A 64-year-old man who gave his name as Nissim was knocked to the floor by a blast and looked into his living room to see a portion of a Scud, 2 feet in diameter, still spitting flames.

"I could not understand what it was," he said. Then his house caught fire, and he bundled his wife in a blanket to escape. The huge part had landed within 10 feet of them, and "I can't understand how we are alive," he said.

There have been no chemical warheads so far.

Army officials acknowledge the strategy is partly to keep civilians dispersed in their homes, so that any one missile will claim few victims.

Many homes in this country, beset by five wars in 43 years, have reinforced shelters. But that may not be enough.

Eitan Grundland, 51, was in his shelter when a Scud landed just outside his home Jan. 25. He was killed by the concussion.

"He never had a chance," said his widow, Aviva, standing outside the remains of their home this week. The blond woman watched as workers brought her odds and ends from the rubble.

Mrs. Grundland had left their home 10 minutes before the attack to take baked goods to a nursing home where she works.

"I did something good for other people, but I did nothing for my husband," she said bitterly. "I should have died with him."

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