“You’re the next in line Avi,” the whole Sderot fire department joked around with their most prized firefighter Avi Maman. All the homes around his home had been hit by Qassam rocket fire from Gaza the past week and the other firemen were joking with him that his home was to be the next.
It was December 29th, 2008 three days into Operation Cast Lead and Avi did not take the jokes lightly. Like many homes in Sderot, Avi’s was having a bomb shelter connected onto it. However, the workers had not finished so the entrance to the bomb shelter was not opened for use but Avi could not let go of the jokes from the other firemen and he brought home a heavy duty hammer and busted open the entrance to the almost finished bomb shelter. He plugged in their television and made his family stay in the bomb shelter. The next morning he was off work as he had worked around the clock the day before, and at 11am his family’s life changed forever.
Avi Maman at the Sderot Fire Station (Photo: Noam Bedein)
Avi’s elderly mother, his wife, his son, and himself were all in the unfinished bomb shelter when as he remembers, the Tzeva Adom “Color Red” alarm blared and within a few seconds the whole house went black. December 30th, 2008, a Qassam directly struck his house destroying everything except miraculously the family who were saved inside the bomb shelter due to Avi’s heroism. The wall inside the house they had used to hide behind was blasted through by the Qassam. The very next day the region’s firemen captain ordered all the bomb shelters to be opened regardless if they were finished or not.
Avi began working at the Sderot fire station in 1985 and until 1994 he worked as the lone fireman. He was given an old truck from 1968 and left in charge of the entire Western Negev region ranging across over 25 miles. Today, the only station in the world that fights fires from Gaza’s Qassam rockets, Avi says it is not much different from the days in which he began.
The fire department in Sderot is managed by only two firemen at all times. The fire truck they use is from 1998 and is the retired old fire truck of the bigger Israeli city of Ashdod, after that station was given a new truck. Avi explains that the bigger richer cities in Israel receive better equipment and man power, and because Sderot is a periphery city it is left to fend for itself. When asked if the station was getting a new truck to prepare for the next rocket escalation he countered, “From where are we going to get a new truck?”
Even during the 21 day period of Operation Cast Lead this past December and January, during which almost 800 rockets were fired from Gaza into the region, the Sderot fire department still had alotted only two firemen. Some days one or two from other cities like Ashqelon, Netivot, and Ashdod would be sent to help out.
However, the man power is never enough as Avi explains, “When a Qassam strikes or there is a fire, I lock the door to the station and race out to the scene."
Avi and Maxsim next to the station's `98 fire truck. (Photo: Noam Bedein)
“What if Hamas fires another rocket or if there is a house fire in Sderot while you are out at the other scene?” Sderot Media Center asked the lone fireman. Avi simply answered by raising his hands in the air and saying, “We have to pray.”
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind in southern Israel that the next escalation of rocket fire could begin at any moment. Since the end of Operation Cast Lead on January 18th, there have been over 262 attacks during this so called “ceasefire.” When asked if he personally was ready and if the fire department was ready for the next escalation Avi replied, “Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring, but we will deal with it with whatever we’ve got.”
Today, nine months after Avi ‘s home was destroyed, he and his family are renting an apartment in Netivot, about a 15 minute drive from Sderot- as their home is still not near finished being rebuilt. Avi works night and day to try to make ends meet to pay for the rebuilding of the home, as the government is only giving him close to 30% of the damage costs, while still paying the mortgage on the destroyed home, and renting an apartment for his family in Netivot. Nonetheless, he insists “It is a blessing from above compared to what could have happened. “