The tragedy began Monday last week when a licensed and experienced exterminator came to the home of Shimon Gross, an avreich studying in Mir. His job was to fumigate a room constantly plagued by moths. The Gross family knew the exterminator well; they had used his services for years.
After placing a container of slow release poison in the effected room, the exterminator, a veteran of thirty years in his profession, sealed the door with masking tape, told the family he’d be back on Friday to air it out, and gave a routine warning: if they smelled anything strange, they should leave the house immediately.
What the family didn’t know was that for reasons so far unresolved, the container he left contained tablets of Phostoxin, the brand name for aluminunum phophide (phosphine), which releases a poison gas similar to the poison Bashar al-Assad allegedly used to exterminate Syrian rebels.
The Environmental Protection Ministry approves the substance for home use but only in infinitesimally smaller concentrations than what was left in the Gross home. Although invisible and odorless, manufacturers add a repellent odor to the substance to warn people if it leaks.
A tiny amount of the substance leaked through the Gross’s sealed door, not enough to be noticed, but enough to be absorbed by inhalation and through the skin, gradually attacking the nervous system and causing nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. The Gross family began to feel the symptoms.
Unaware of the cause of their malaise, they went to a local emergency room and said they suspected they were suffering from food poisoning after eating rotten cheese and fish.
Finding no signs of food poisoning, the emergency personnel told them to take a pain reliever and buy nausea medication the next morning. The Gross family returned to their death trap. Later, after the tragedy had run its course, the family claimed they had mentioned their home was being fumigated. The emergency personnel deny it.
On Wednesday, an ambulance was summoned to the family’s apartment in Givat Mordechai and found the six members of the family in states ranging from sleepy to unconscious.
“We came to the apartment and found a girl of about 2 who wasn’t breathing,” said paramedic Yisrael Cohen. “As we were trying to resuscitate her, they told us there were another three children who didn’t feel well, and they told us about the extermination. We found the children in various states of consciousness, they were sent to the hospital in a single ambulance. We took the girl while still trying to resuscitate her.”
The commander of a fire brigade unite that arrived at the scene said that the phosphine in the Gross home was the highest indoor level ever recorded in Israel. It was so extreme that the first two paramedics to enter and help the family needed medical attention themselves after spending a short time inside. People entering the apartment afterwards wore full chemical-warfare gear.
En route to hospital, the medics tried to understand what substance had been used, because in contrast to other substances with which they were familiar, the children worsened en route to the hospital and even after they arrived. There is no known antidote to the poison. All doctors can do is provide support to the body’s systems until the poison dissipates and the patient hopefully recovers on his own.
The family was first taken to nearby Shaarei Tzedek Medical Center. Later, the boys were transferred to Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petach Tikvah where they were placed under general anesthesia and put on ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) heart-lung machines to give their cardiac muscles a chance to recover from the severe neurological damage the toxin inflicted.
As investigators struggled to discover what had happened, interrogated the exterminator and later placed him under house arrest, the Gross parents shook off the effects of the poison and returned to the world of the living. Their two boys remain in constant danger of heart failure.
A TREASURE RETURNED
Shimon Gross was well enough to attend the levayah of his two daughters, which was attended by a huge crowd and the roshei yeshiva of Mir.
He spoke of Bruriah, Rav Meir’s wife, who hid her dead sons when they died over Shabbos and then asked him: “If I was given a treasure to look after and the owner wants it back, must I return it?”
Rabbi Meir wept and declared, “Hashem gave, and Hashem took away.”
But why did he cry if he understood that the deposits Hashem gives us must be returned? the girls’ father asked.
“Because if the Owner comes along and asks for his deposit before the appointed time, it indicates that we were not good guardians. Maybe we weren’t worthy to safeguard these gifts. Perhaps that is why we did not merit to raise them to adulthood.”
Turning to his daughters, their father cried out:
“Hashem, you gave us Avigail, who was so good and so pure. She was always asking, ‘Is this a mitzvah?’ She was such a pure spirit, she loved to help. Yaeli just started talking, always saying, ‘Daddy, Mommy.’ She was so pure, so sweet. They were such good friends… Yesterday morning they were talking and happy, at night they were still dancing. Hashem came and took them in an instant, from one second to the next. We didn’t even have time to pray.
“We have no questions. We don’t know the ways of Heaven, we don’t know why this happened to us. But if the Holy One, blessed is He, brought us this crisis, He will give us the strength to withstand it.
“Avigail and Yael,” he told his deceased girls, “go before the throne of glory, you’re babies who never sinned, and ask for Divine mercy for your brothers.”
When asked whether the Gross parents had to sit shivah for their daughters, Rav Ezriel Auerbach, rov of Bayit Vegan, immediately paskened that because of the critical need to care for their two sons they were exempt. He based this on the pesak of Shulchan Aruch (640:3), “The sick and those who care for them are exempt from the sukkah.”
Rav Azriel added that if the parents wanted, the father could sit a few minutes after Shacharis, but the mother did not need to sit at all.
Back at the hospital, Shimon and Michal Gross remained at their sons’ side constantly.“When we came here after the levayah and I saw my sons, I was broken,” Shimon said. “We are only human and not made of stone. But Michal gave me support. She told me that everything is from above and we should be optimistic.”
Doctors said the presence of the parents was critical.
“They are present all the time in the hospital,” a relative said. “The doctors tell them they must remain close to their boys as much as possible and that their presence is critical… They have to speak to them all the time and this speeds the process of regaining their consciousness. Once a day, they release the boys from their sedation to see whether their bodies have begun to respond.”
PUBLIC CONCERN WAS MASSIVE
Restaurants and private people sent in huge quantities of food. People from everywhere came to see if they could help. Tehillim was recited in shuls and botei medrashim everywhere. Special minyonim and Tehillim sessions were organized at the Kosel. Rebbes and rabbonim encouraged people to accept hanhogos tovos upon themselves for the boys’ refuah shleimah.
The hundreds of visitors included Aryeh Deri who said, “We came to give chizuk and we left strengthened.” He promised that the thousands of children of Shas’ Ma’ayan Hachinuch would daven for the boys’ refuah shleimah.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called the Gross couple to say the whole nation mourned with them.
“The nation of Israel cries with you and embraces you,” he said. “Our thoughts are with you in this difficult hour. We mourn the deaths of Yael and Avigail of blessed memory, and pray for the welfare of the boys.”
“I feel the embrace of Klal Yisroel and I thank everyone. Only prayer will help,” the boy’s mother told Arutz Sheva. “There’s nothing else in the world, because their condition is serious. We saw the children, their condition is serious and we want them with us. The girls are already gone, the Holy One blessed be He took them. They are beside Him as sweet righteous ones, and it’s good for them. What Hashem does is for good, we are certain of that. With Hashem’s help, in the merit of Klal Yisroel, the boys will be healthy and continue to be happy with us.” She also asked people to publicize, “We should not speak any loshon hora about the exterminator who had inadvertently poisoned her children.”
“What happened,” she explained, “was Hashem’s decree and we should not speak loshon hora about this poor man who was just Hashem’s messenger.”
MESSAGE OF THE GEDOLIM
Gedolim reacted to the incident with shock, saying it was a call upon Klal Yisroel to improve their avodas Hashem.
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed how many will pass away and how many will be created, who will live and who will die, who in his time and who not in his time. We cannot know the cheshbonos of heaven,” Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman said. “But during these days [of Shovavim], which are a time of rectification of transgression as the Arizal said, the midas hadin is harsher and we must be inspired to repentance. However, to merit proper repentance is no simple matter. The Keter Rosh of Rav Chaim of Volozhin writes that the principle teshuvah the Torah demands is to regret the past and commit oneself to the future, and it is very difficult to do this properly.”
When asked what people should work on, he spoke about the severe sin of bitul Torah.
“If someone wants to be saved from the bitter punishment of this great sin, he should become involved in caring for the needs of talmidim and rabbonim who study lesheim Shomayim, and help cover the salaries of rabbonim so that they remain in his town and continue studying Torah thanks to his help,” he said. “At this time, it is an obligation on every person to strengthen himself in this matter according to his potential.”
“When such terrible tragedies occur it obliges us to awaken and strengthen our Torah and tefillah,” said rosh yeshivas Ponevez, Rav Gershon Edelshtein. “We must stop being complacent and indifferent and consider what Hashem wants from us and what we must strengthen at this difficult hour.”
Chief Rabbi Dovid Lau called on women to light Shabbos candles five minutes early for the boys’ refuah shleimah.
During the past few days, both boys first reacted by moving when spoken to and have squeezed people’s hands. The older son opened his eyes. Doctors warn that these encouraging signs do not necessarily indicate anything significant. But Sunday and Monday the boys were successfully removed from the EMCO machines and their hearts functioned normally.
“Today and yesterday we saw a miracle,” their father said. “…The chizuk from Klal Yisroel is having its effect, the tefillos are helping. Yesterday, when I saw Yitzchok’s heart begin to work it was truly moving — this was the heart of Klal Yisroel. Today we saw the same with Michoel for whom the procedure was more critical.”
However, there is still a way to go. The boys are still under sedation and on respirators and their condition remains critical.
“We do not know what damage the lungs and other systems incurred,” said Dr. Einat Birk, Director of the hospital’s heart institute. “In terms of the heart we could wake the children but it is better to leave them sedated in terms of their other systems.”
The boys’ parents beg the tzibbur to continue to daven and say Tehillim for the refuah shleimah of Rafoel Yitzchok Eizik ben Michal and Chaim Michoel Shlomo ben Michal.
“The doctors tell me, ‘We’re doing the hishtadlus, but knowledge of the condition is very scant,’” their father said. “Tefillos help, you can see that they help!”