'Lindenstrauss didn't give answers in fire report'

Relatives of those killed when Prisons Service bus caught fire in Carmel call for government inquiry.

Bereaved families near the Knesset in July 2011 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Bereaved families near the Knesset in July 2011
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The father of one of the 37 Prisons Service staff killed in the Carmel Fire said on Tuesday that the state comptroller had failed to give bereaved families the answers he promised about the disaster.
Speaking at a special Knesset State Control Committee hearing regarding the state comptroller’s recent report into the December 2010 blaze on Mount Carmel near Haifa, David Dayan, whose son Yochai died in the fire, said the government must carry out an in-depth audit of failures that led to the deaths.
“We divide the first day of the disaster into two things, the Carmel Fire and the bus disaster.
The State Comptroller’s Report dealt with the Carmel Fire disaster. It did not deal with the bus disaster,” Dayan added, referring to the Prisons Service bus that was engulfed with flames on December 2, 2010, in which his son died.
“[Outgoing state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss] promised to give us answers within four months and it took over a year and a half – and in the end we are left with no answers at all,” Dayan said, adding that bereaved families were now calling on the government to establish a commission of inquiry to probe the failures that led to the bus deaths.
“There is not a single police officer, Prisons Service guard or firefighter who stood up and said, ‘I made a mistake.’ Not even their commanders,” Dayan said. “We came here today to demand a clear answer to what happened to those cadets on the bus.”
As Dayan spoke, a young boy behind him – another bereaved family member – wiped away tears.
Forty-four people died in the five-day fire, the worst in the state’s history. Among them were 37 Prisons Service staff, mostly cadets, who died along with their driver when their bus was engulfed by flames.
They were on the way to Damon Prison to evacuate its inmates. 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.
At the start of Tuesday’s packed Control Committee hearing, at which members of around 40 bereaved families were present, the committee stood for a minute of silence to remember those who died.
As the meeting opened, committee chairman MK Uri Ariel (National Union) sharply criticized Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz for failing to attend.
Steinitz, whom the comptroller’s report said should take “special responsibility” for the disaster, sent his apologies and asked his deputy to attend the hearing in his stead.
“We do not excuse anyone,” Ariel said, referring to Steinitz.
“Everyone named in the report must attend. There is nothing to fear by coming here, we are not a court and God forbid we are not executioners.”
In a blistering attack on Steinitz, Ariel noted that the State Control Committee has the authority to compel people to attend, and warned he would use that power in future if necessary. “The Carmel disaster could have been avoided, if someone had taken responsibility,” he said. “But the most worrying thing is that nobody has admitted error or asked for forgiveness. How can it be so hard for someone who makes a mistake to admit that mistake?” The chairman added that there would be a further meeting on August 7 in which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would participate.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who also attended the hearing, joined Ariel’s criticism of Steinitz, saying the finance minister was obliged by the Knesset to deal with the report’s findings and stressed that Steinitz could not disavow himself of that responsibility by sending his deputy.
Lindenstrauss’s scathing probe into the Carmel Fire, published last month, said Interior Minister Eli Yishai as well as Steinitz should take “particular responsibility” for serious failures in the country’s firefighting system.
The report slammed Steinitz for making desperately needed funding for the firefighting service contingent on extensive, long-term reforms.
Meanwhile, Lindenstrauss said Yishai failed to take responsibility for the firefighting services’ operational readiness in an emergency, even though he did press for more funding.
Also present at the meeting were Yishai, new State Comptroller Joseph Shapira and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch.
Yishai appeared tense during the hearing, briefly holding his head in his hands as Ariel said the report revealed a “harsh reality of conflict within government ministries.”
“Sometimes it appears as if [ministries] forgot about their responsibility vis-à-vis the public,” Ariel said, adding that there had been “leadership blindness.”
Yishai admitted to the meeting that the “writing was on the wall” when he began his tenure as interior minister three years ago.
“I saw a firefighting system that had serious deficiencies, because of the fact that funding had been made conditional on reform,” Yishai said. “I saw that this could be a problem, but I never predicted such a serious disaster,” the interior minister added.
When it was the turn of Aharonovitch – whose ministry oversees the police and the Prisons Service – to speak, Ariel said the report had hid hard at the police’s image.
Ariel asked Aharonovitch to reconsider whether those in the Israel Police, Fire Service and Prisons Service whom the report had named as having failed in their roles should be allowed to remain in their jobs.
“It’s is untenable that someone the report marked as having failed should be promoted,” Ariel said.
Aharonovitch demurred, however.
He said his ministry was dealing with the issues and suggestions raised in the report. “I am responsible for the police and the Prisons Service, and I have a parliamentary and ministerial responsibility, and recently the responsibility for the fire services was also transferred to me, after the Carmel Fire. I did not wait for the draft [comptroller’s] report, from early on we sent investigatory teams out to the organizations [we are in charge of],” he said.
The public security minister said that in the Fire Service there were large gaps in procurement, equipment, resources and training.
Regarding reform, Aharonovitch said he had made a plan that there would be funding of NIS 1.5. billion every five years to establish the new system, and that on Monday his ministry received NIS 1.1b. to be used over six years.
“The fire system was neglected for decades,” he added, echoing Yishai’s earlier remarks.
Aharonovitch said his comments came after he, Netanyahu and Steinitz presented a plan on Monday for reform, according to which local fire services would be replaced by a national fire and rescue service.
According to the new model, a national fire and rescue service will be established to replace the individual fire services that operate in local authorities.
Boaz Aner, director of the State Comptroller’s Office, listed a number of failures of the emergency services, including that after the fire broke out in 2010, nobody had consulted with the country’s meteorological services to ask what direction the blaze could take.
Labor chairwoman Shelley Yechimovich said responsibility for the fire rested with the Treasury, saying that the fire services had “called out for help,” and had made it clear that they were unable to function properly or to save lives.
Yechimovich slammed as “ridiculous” the finance minister’s response to the Carmel Fire report.
“The minister’s argument that [funding the fire service without reform] would have meant the end of fiscal discipline is ridiculous,” she said.
“But we know the power of the Treasury. They dictate fiscal policy for ministries, but when it comes to the issue of responsibility, suddenly they are petty officials.”