Eitan Biran: the cable car crash survivor at centre of custody battle

That a single person survived when a cable car crashed in northern Italy was nothing short of a miracle.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Alpine Rescue Service/Reuters

Eitan Biran, aged five at the time of the accident, is believed to have been saved by the protective embrace of his father, Amit, as the cable car plummeted to the ground.

The tragedy has been one of the most heartrending stories in Italy so far this year.

Fifteen people were inside the cabin when it set off from the town of Stresa, by Lake Maggiore, for the 20-minute ride to the summit of Monte Mottarone on 23 May.

It was the first weekend of sunshine since Italy started easing coronavirus restrictions in late April, including opening up to travellers from Israel.

Just seconds before the cabin reached Monte Mottarone, popular among families for the Alpyland amusement park, a lead cable snapped, causing it to hurtle backwards before falling 20 metres into a wooded area below.

All but two of the passengers, including Eitan’s parents, two-year-old brother, Tom, and great-grandparents, who had been visiting from Israel, were killed upon impact. The bodies of some of the victims were found trapped in the crumpled cabin; others had been thrown into the woods.

Eitan was flown by air ambulance to a hospital in Turin suffering from injuries to his head and legs. Agitated and calling out for his mum, doctors had to sedate him. Mattia Zorloni, who was the same age as Eitan at the time of the accident, was also airlifted from the crash site and taken to the same hospital but died from his injuries soon after.

The next day, as people in Stresa absorbed the shock of the tragedy, they kept returning to Eitan – “the little boy saved by his father’s arms” – asking themselves what kind of life he would now have.

The crash not only killed Eitan’s parents, brother and great-grandparents, but has torn the rest of his family apart amid a vicious custody battle, which last week led to the boy being allegedly abducted by his maternal grandfather and taken to Israel.

Eitan was born in Israel but had been living in Pavia, a city in the Lombardy region, since he was 18 months old. His father was a doctor and his mother, Tal Peleg-Biran, was a graduate of psychology.

In the days after the accident, a Turin court granted temporary custody to Eitan’s paternal aunt, Aya Biran-Nirko, also a doctor living in Pavia. The speedy custody decision was needed so that Eitan, who has an Italian and an Israeli passport, could continue to be given the necessary medical care. But the move was contested by relatives on his mother’s side in Israel, and as Eitan settled into his aunt’s home, where he had been living since being discharged from hospital in June, tensions between the two sides of the family escalated.

© Photograph: Alpine Rescue Service/Reuters The crashed cable car after it collapsed in Stresa, near Lake Maggiore, in Italy in May.

In August, it was announced at a press conference in Israel that Eitan’s maternal aunt, Gali Peleg, had begun proceedings for his adoption. Her lawyer, Ronen Dlayahu, accused relatives in Italy of holding Eitan “hostage”. He claimed: “Eitan was taken away by a family that did not know him, that had not been close to him in any way previously.”

Eitan’s grandfather, Shmuel Peleg, who this week was put under five days of house arrest in Tel Aviv as part of an investigation into the alleged abduction, is reported to have moved to Italy after the tragedy. He was given visitation rights to Eitan, who in recent months had been undergoing treatment for his physical injuries and mental trauma caused by the crash.

Peleg was also in possession of Eitan’s Israeli passport and refused to renounce it, despite being given a 30 August deadline by a judge due to fears that Eitan might be taken out of Italy.

Despite Peleg missing the deadline, there was no revocation of his visitation rights.

In the morning of 11 September, Peleg picked Eitan up, saying he would take him out to lunch and shopping for toys. As he left the house with his walking frame, Eitan said goodbye cheerfully, promising to buy toys for his cousins, too.

He was not brought home by early evening as agreed. Instead, he was reportedly taken across the border to Lugano in Switzerland before being flown by private plane to Tel Aviv. Gali Peleg denied that Eitan was abducted. “We will not use that word,” she told Israeli media. “What happened is that we brought Eitan home.”

Biran-Nirko, who has submitted a petition to a Tel Aviv court for Eitan’s return to Italy and is preparing to travel to Israel, spoke for the first time to the press the day after his alleged abduction. She said Eitan could only fall asleep if she held his hand and that whenever she left the room, she would give him her glasses to reassure him of her return. Biran-Nirko denied accusations that she was an “unknown” to Eitan before the tragedy. “This is false – our families shared each other’s lives,” she said.

Last Monday Eitan had been due to start school, the one at which his parents had registered him before they died. The Italian press published photos of his empty school desk. With the custody battle far from resolved, Eitan’s desk could remain empty for some time.

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