Seventy-nine people were injured as the result of a fire that broke out aboard a train carrying 400 passengers on Tuesday.
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The train caught fire on its way south from Nahariya and came to a stop near Yakum, 10 kilometers south of Netanya.
The fire completely burned up three railway cars, and some passengers were forced to evacuate the train through windows because the doors did not open automatically.
Police say early investigations point to a short circuit in one of the rear engines as the likely cause of the fire. Investigations are also under way to determine why the doors failed to open.
Half a dozen hospitals in the Dan and Sharon regions received the injured, who generally suffered smoke inhalation as well as cuts and bruises as a result of exiting through broken windows.
Except for five in moderate condition, all were lightly hurt.
Yehuda Fegal, a soldier making his way to Jerusalem from his home in Nahariya, said he had been taking a nap when he was awakened by cries of “Fire!” and people rushing past him from the front of the train.
“I smelled smoke and heard the screams, so I immediately joined the rush to the back. Some of the passengers started breaking the windows in order to let out the smoke, and I used the butt of my rifle to push out one of the windows,” Fegal said.
Fegal said he also heard rifle shots, later learning that a fellow soldier had used his weapon to shoot out the window. That soldier, 43-year-old Suliman Amar, who serves in the Border Police, shot a volley of bullets into the window in an effort to create an exit for passengers.
“By the time we reached the door, the train had come to a stop and the whole car was full of smoke, making it hard to breathe,” Fegal said. “I managed to exit through the doors and immediately began assisting other people down from the opening. I saw that some people farther down the train exited the car through broken windows, and know of one woman who broke her leg as a result of the drop from the window to the ground.”
He added that “the rescue crews were here within minutes and began putting out the fire and escorting people away from the train to a safe spot several hundred meters away. Most of the other passengers have already been transported away in buses. I came back to retrieve my bag.”
Dan Josefsberg, an officer from the Netanya fire station, was one of the first on the scene.
Josefsberg told The Jerusalem Post
that the station received the call and immediately rushed all its teams to the scene, while requesting assistance from fire stations in nearby Herzliya, Kfar Saba and Ra’anana.
“When we arrived, we saw that two railway cars were fully ablaze and that two others were showing signs of burning. We immediately started putting out the flames and at the same time sent crews to look through the train for people left on board and make sure nobody was trapped,” recounted Josefsberg.
“When we arrived, the police and Magen David Adom crews were already here and had begun providing medical attention to the injured passengers,” he added.
Yitzhak Shilan, chief of the Netanya fire station, said that initial field investigations indicated the fire started in one of the rear engines located under the train, and not in the cars themselves, but that further inspection would reveal the precise cause. Television news reports in the evening mentioned the possibility of fuel leaks and an electrical short-circuit.
“We will look into the cause of the fire, but what also needs to be investigated is why the carriage doors didn’t open when the emergency brakes were operated,” said Shilan, a member of the special inquiry task force that Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz assigned to investigate the fire.
MDA director-general Eli Bin said that when he heard about the fire he was in the middle of a drill with Israel Railways, and initially didn’t know if the alarm was part of the drill or a real emergency.
“When we discovered that it was a real event, we called an emergency situation in the Sharon and Yarkon regions, and MDA forces rushed to the scene in great force,” Bin said. “The event was under control in minutes. We treated a total of 79 people, five of them in moderate condition, most suffering from smoke inhalation or from cuts as result of exiting through the broken windows.”
Netanya police chief Asst.-Cmdr Ami Eshed, in a briefing to reporters in the field, said the fire had first been discovered when a train traveling in the opposite direction identified flames coming out of the engines and notified the command center.
“At the same time, security officers aboard the train noticed smoke in the carriage and pressed the emergency button and started evacuation measures. The evacuation took several minutes.
Some of the passengers attempted to break windows and exit through them,” Eshed said.
“We are currently investigating the event on several fronts. We have begun surveying the train to find indications of what started the fire and are already interviewing passengers who witnessed the fire to put together a complete picture,” Eshed continued.
“I would like to calm the public and let them know that already at this early stage, we have no indication that points to this being anything but a fire,” he added. “I know that there have been rumors that perhaps the fire was intentionally started, but that is not the case.”
Eshed said there were still many technical issues that had to be examined and that the police would investigate them in the next few hours.
Israel Railways CEO Yitzhak Harel said it was too early to say why the emergency systems that were supposed to open the doors of the carriage failed to work.
“There is a system that is supposed to open the doors automatically in case of a fire, and we do not know why it malfunctioned,” he said.
Harel stated that all the doors could be opened by an emergency handle, but the passengers, in their rush and panic, did not manage to open them.
“Where Israel Railways staff members were present, they opened the doors,” he said, adding, “I would like to commend the work of the staff, who performed properly, and as a result no passengers suffered burns.”
According to Harel, there were three railway employees aboard the train at the time of the fire: a conductor, a security officer and a superintendent.
Harel said that train services, which were stopped when notification of the fire was received, would resume as soon as the train was removed from the track. Judy Siegel contributed to this report.