Days of awe and light, with a dreadful new significance

An eyewitness account of events on the ground during the raging Carmel forest fire in the North.

December 3, 2010 08:36
2 minute read.
FIREFIGHTERS WORK to extinguish a massive blaze in a Jerusalem-area forest that destroyed 1,000 duna

forest fire 311. (photo credit: Channel 10)

The University of Haifa campus resembled a giant war room on Thursday evening, as officers from all branches of the national rescue services scrambled to forge a plan to battle the wildfire on the Carmel that had already claimed dozens of lives.

Perched above Haifa, the campus afforded a panoramic view of the flames that had engulfed the hilltops on the horizon. In a parking lot near the entry to the university, a field command center was set up, where representatives of the Israel Parks Authority, Israel Police, IDF Home Front Command and Magen David Adom worked round the clock coordinating the fight against the blaze.

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Analysis: A tragedy that was waiting to happen
Background: ‘You’ve never seen such flames’

Inside an adjacent building, dozens of officers from the full range of the security and rescue forces briefed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel Police Insp.- Gen. David Cohen and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharanovitch.

Coffee cups and boxed lunches prepared for the rescue services personnel were scattered across the room. The feeling of crisis and heartbreak was fitting an event the prime minister later referred to as a national disaster and a national day of mourning.

In the hallway leading to the room, two police commanders from the northern district comforted each other on a leather couch, with tears welling in their eyes as they stared off at nothing in particular.

Hours earlier, Haifa police commander Asst.-Cmder. Ahuva Tomer suffered burns over nearly her entire body as she rushed to save fellow officers trapped in a burning vehicle. As she remained in critical condition at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, it was unclear if it was Tomer’s fate that was on the officers’ minds, or that of the approximately 40 Prisons Service officers who died earlier in the day when their bus overturned in the flames.

The officers were not the only ones struck by the event. Netanyahu seemed to have tears in his eyes as he briefed reporters, though that may also have been the result of the smoke and ash circling in the air outside.

The look on the face of Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, however, left no doubt that the day’s ongoing disaster had taken an emotional toll on the city leader. Yahav’s pain was clearly shared by a number of national leaders present, including MK Ayoub Kara, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, all of whom attended the briefing along with leaders of the Druse community.

The sense of crisis and the sorrow inside the command center matched that outside on center matched that outside on the streets of Haifa. From the seashore to the hills, unmarked police cars, ambulances and fire trucks charged up and down the streets leading to the university as locals and visitors stopped to gawk at the fires on the mountains.

With the sky over the Denya neighborhood full of smoke and flames to the horizon, the city seemed to be on nothing short of war footing.

With no end in sight, Haifa could remain on edge throughout the Hanukka holiday. Days of awe and light, with a dreadful new significance.

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