"It is impossible to explain how this accident happened in one of the safest places on earth to drive," Walid Mansour, Israel's ambassador in Peru and Bolivia, told The Jerusalem Post Sunday.
Mansour, Israel's envoy to the area for the past two and a half years, rushed on Thursday from Lima, the capital of Peru, to the Bolivian capital, La Paz, where he found the five dead backpackers' friends in a state of distress.
"In the past year and a half, most of my trips to La Paz have been under upsetting circumstances, and in that time, we have worked to send home 13 bodies of Israelis who died during their trips," Mansour said.
Mansour said he had hoped the information he first received - that five Israelis had died in a terrible car accident in the Uyuni Salt Flats of Bolivia, also known as El Salar de Uyuni - was wrong or at least exaggerated.
"At 3 a.m. on Friday, I met the six friends who were in the second jeep and weren't involved in the accident, in La Paz," Mansour said. "They said they couldn't handle the situation anymore. They were silent and withdrawn into themselves. I can imagine that the fact that for a long time they watched their friends' vehicle burning while they couldn't do a thing to help made it much more difficult on them."
Early Friday morning, Mansour contacted the authorities to move the bodies from the hospital in Uyuni to a hospital in La Paz, where the required documents could be obtained and the six bodies identified, including the body of the Bolivian cook, which was separated from the rest. The driver, who survived the accident, was hospitalized with severe burns and lost one of his legs.
"We also contacted the Japanese Embassy and informed them of the five dead Japanese who were sitting in the second jeep, where the local driver and the tour guide were killed as well," Mansour said.
He praised the cooperation of the Bolivian authorities, saying: "They gave us a military plane, by which we arrived in Uyuni. The bodies were held in the local hospital, and after receiving the help of the local Jewish community in identifying the body of the Bolivian cook, we received permission to take the bodies and a permit to continue the identification process in Israel, where the process would be easier, due to the bodies' bad condition."
Mansour and the Bolivian authorities could not explain why the accident occurred.
"The Salar is an inland sea of salt that was dried and became flat and safe to drive on, like a huge surface of marble," he said. "This place has no valleys or hills, no off-limits areas... There were also no signs of braking on the road, and the friends said the driver was not suffering fatigue. This was an accident that shouldn't have happened, and it was a horrible sight - the friends in the second jeep saw it all, and there was nothing they could do to save their friends."