Police investigators and Transportation Ministry officials launched an investigation Tuesday night into the cause of a collision between a train and a truck near Kibbutz Revadim that left eight people and more than 190 wounded.
It was the worst train crash since the Habonim disaster in 1985 that claimed the lives of 22 children and their escorts.
Police said the focus of their investigation would be the truck driver's behavior and the reason his truck, which was involved in the construction of Route 6, was crossing the tracks in an area that did not have a proper warning system. Police noted that it was too early to tell whether the truck collided with the train or the train collided with the truck.
The commuter train was traveling from Tel Aviv to Beersheba.
Police said that the trucking company, Eliahu Brothers, had been under criminal investigation in the past for having its drivers work 30 to 40 consecutive hours - way over the 12-hour maximum time permitted by law.
Railway officials estimated the truck weighed more than 50 tons. They said that the tracks were so bent out of shape and so many cement ties were crushed that a major overhaul of the section would be required. They said it would be difficult to remove the cars and the line to Beersheba would be shut for some time.
Just before 6 p.m. the train, carrying more than 300 people, passed through an underpass and headed down a straight, clear track. Crossing a makeshift dirt track was a white Volvo truck pulling a trailer and filled with an estimated 50 tons of powdered coal.
"It didn't get stuck. He was just trying to cross and the train failed to stop. There was an explosion and everything was flying into the air," said witness Zuhar Shehadi, a truck driver from Nazareth.
"It wasn't an attack. It was worse than an attack. People were flying. People were murdered. Screams and fire."
According to witnesses, the locomotive, which also carries passengers, dragged the truck for about 200 meters down the track until it toppled over, broke away from the rest of the train and began wildly flipping over and over.
Passengers were flung out as the carriage broke apart, spewing wreckage as it plowed into a field of sunflowers.
The second carriage also derailed, but stayed upright as the rest of the train came to an abrupt halt. Passengers shattered many of the windows to escape from the train.
Passengers reported that they felt the driver attempt to activate an emergency brake. They also recalled hearing the driver repeatedly sound the train's horn, Channel 1 reported.
But medic Efraim Ya'akov, who was in the third carriage, didn't recall any horns or braking.
"I felt a blow and I understood we hit something," said Ya'akov, 38, of Kiryat Gat.
After fleeing from the train, he said he did a quick body check and found he was not seriously hurt and he started treating the injured.
"The first thing I did was open someone's breathing passage and I started instructing people around me to do the same," he said, his face bloody, rubber gloves still on his hands.
Yigal Zohar, head of operations of the Ashkelon Fire Brigade, was one of the first to arrive.
"When we got here we found the truck driver dead just here," he said, pointing next to the wreckage of the truck. "There were at least five dead people on the locomotive, and it is likely the driver of the train was among them."
As the sun finally went down, troops illuminated the field with bright spotlights. Rescue crews with heavy machinery raised the wreckage with a crane.
Soldiers and border policemen restrained bystanders, as rescue teams searched with dogs and collected passengers' bags, strewn across the fields.
Railroad officials said that it was normal procedure to have these rural crossings without any sign posting or crossing gates and lights.
This particular crossing was used by trucks working on Route 6, which runs parallel to the railway.
Police investigators said "with 100 percent certainty" that the fatal crash was not any type of terror attack. Still, the air force quickly airlifted Special Forces to the site and began an unceasing shuttle of wounded to hospitals.
The Home Front Command's rescue unit arrived shortly afterward and began cutting apart the locomotive in a search for victims.
"This isn't something that you can get used to. To our regret, we have bitter experience and our rescue forces are well trained for this," said Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim, who visited the scene.
Five of the seriously-to-critically injured, among them an infant, were airlifted to Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer.
Evacuation of the injured was made more difficult by the isolated location. At least 10 trips were made by military helicopters to evacuate the wounded.
Barzilai Hospital director Shimon Sheref said his entire available staff was called in from home.
"The investigation is just at the beginning and it will take several days before we discover what really happened here," police Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi said. "There is no doubt that the Israel Railways, the Trans-Israel Highway Company and the Yoav Regional Council will have to rethink the way train tracks intersect with roads and vehicles in this area."
Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit announced the establishment of an inquiry commission to study the accident. Members of the committee are Yishayahu Ronen, a senior ministry engineer, Traffic Police Asst.-Cmdr. Moshe Ben-Zikri and Harel Even of Israel Railways.
The Eliahu Brothers came under the police investigation several months ago after its owners allegedly installed a device to neutralize a mechanism in trucks that records the number of consecutive hours a driver has been behind the wheel. More than 20 employees were questioned.
"This is something we have been fighting for years because of the potential dangers to other drivers on the roads," said Zelda Harris, spokeswoman for Metuna, the organization for road safety. "This is not something that just happened. People lost their lives and others were injured because of something that should not have happened and the questions have to be asked and answered."
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