Comptroller slams ministers for Carmel fire ‘failures’

Prime Minister Netanyahu, Eli Yishai, Yuval Steinitz and Yitzhak Aharonovich expected to be taken to task, as well as police and Prisons Service.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
August 15, 2011 00:32
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss

311_Micha Lindenstrauss. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss on Sunday sent a draft copy of his comprehensive report on December’s Mount Carmel fire disaster to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich.

Senior officials in the police and Prisons Service also received copies of the document, to which they have been asked to respond within 30 days.

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Lindenstrauss has warned on several occasions within the past few weeks that his report will reveal serious negligence on the part of several of the organizations investigated in connection with the tragedy last December, in which 44 people died.

Among the victims were 37 Prisons Service cadets and their commanding officers, who died along with their driver when their bus was engulfed by flames.

They were on the way to Damun Prison to evacuate its prisoners. Three senior police officers, two firefighters and a 16- year-old volunteer firefighter also died.

The fire caused widespread damage to land and property, totaling million of shekels. An estimated 1.5 million trees were destroyed.



A team of 30 auditors have worked around the clock on the report, which at 450 pages is the largest produced in recent years, the State Comptroller’s Office said in a statement on Sunday.

The length of the draft report was a result of the “scale of the disaster and its serious consequences,” the statement noted.

According to the state comptroller’s statement, the document reveals “a long series of blunders and failures, the tragic outcome of which is that the fatal fire on the Carmel – which took a toll of unprecedented magnitude – was not avoided.”

The report focuses on six main areas: the events on the first day (December 2) of the fire from the morning to the time the Prisons Service bus was engulfed in flames; the actions of the firefighting services; forest and bush fire prevention; security in events of emergency; the preparedness of local authorities and how they functioned during the fire; and the responsibility of ministers for failures and oversights, including in past governments.

The report exposes failures and serious action in all of these areas, the State Comptroller’s Office said.

A source close to the investigation into the fire said that the draft report criticizes Yishai, Steinitz, Aharonovich and Netanyahu for ignoring problems even though they had enough time to realize that the Fire Services were not able to deal with large fires.

Already in his scathing report, the state comptroller dubbed Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services the “weak link” in emergency readiness and said that ministerial responsibility lay with Yishai.

In the Knesset on Sunday, Yishai, whose office was in charge of firefighting services at the time of the tragedy, rejected the idea that the report would criticize him personally.

“Was I the only person who was working? What did people expect? That I should have taken a fire engine and driven it into the area? That I should replace the commanders?” he asked.

“The interior minister was the only one who carried out tasks at the hands on level – calling companies that provided equipment, purchasing companies – that’s me? The interior minister is not a purchasing manager, he’s not a prophet or a prophet’s son, but all the same people’s lives were before my eyes.”

Members of the previous Olmert government, as well as some in the current Netanyahu administration, are expected to come under fire in the report.

According to Ynet, sources close to the investigation into the fire said the state comptroller mentions in his report the 2007 letter sent by then-interior minister Meir Sheetrit to then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, in which he warned that the country’s firefighting services were far from adequate.

However, Yishai would also have received the same warning.

Sources close to Yishai said on Sunday evening that the report emphasized that the interior minister’s responsibility in respect to the Carmel fire was equal to that of the Steinitz and Aharonovich, but that the responsibility was ministerial rather than personal.

The same sources said that the draft report mentions that Yishai had asked for additional budgets for firefighters but that the funding was refused.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that it had received the report and would respond to it.

“It should be pointed out that the current government allocated more resources to the firefighting services after decades of neglect, well before the Carmel fire. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu brought in airplanes that greatly aided the firefighters on the Carmel, as the State Comptroller’s Report points out,” the statement said. “After the fire, assisted by his ministers, the prime minister led the development of an aerial firefighting service which has already proved itself by extinguishing 70 fires, including the large fire in the Jerusalem Forest [on July 17] that threatened to burn Yad Vashem.”

Steinitz admitted in his testimony to the State Comptroller’s Office that he had not supported providing firefighters with additional budgets before they committed to reforms. Those reforms included the creation of a national firefighting force.

Sources said that the report also mentions a dispute with the Jewish National Fund regarding how funding for firefighters is allocated. JNF firefighters also battled the Carmel fire.

Although he was not among those who received a copy of the draft report, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is also expected to face criticism, and sources said the report includes a full chapter about the functioning of the Defense Ministry.

In a statement on Sunday, the State Comptroller’s Office cited a previous report on the 2006 Second Lebanon War that criticized the Defense Ministry, in order to point out that the state comptroller has repeatedly warned of the dangers of failing to extinguish fires.

The Fire Services and police are also directly criticized, sources said. The draft report includes details of low-level decision-making, including that firefighters did not have enough flame retardant foam to extinguish the fire, and that some firefighters had been at a conference when the fire broke out and arrived four hours too late.

However, sources who read the draft report said that the state comptroller barely made any mention of the functioning of the Finance Ministry.

According to the State Comptroller’s Office, all audited bodies are expected to respond to those sections of the report dealing with their particular role in the fire within 30 days, after which the final report will be published. However, some of those asked to respond are expected to ask for extensions.

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