(photo credit: Courtesy)
There was only one thing missing during the three-hour ordeal that followed the
deadly train accident near Kibbutz Gat on Thursday night: a megaphone to inform,
calm and direct the hundreds of worried passengers who were unwilling
participants in the unfolding drama.
Like a scene from “The Poseidon
Adventure,” confused passengers were left to figure out what had happened when
their train from Tel Aviv to Beersheba came to an abrupt stop at 7:05
Outside, rescue crews had to deal with horrific wreckage and the
death of a whole family. Inside, a full cast of clueless characters spent much
of their time running up and down the aisles, though there was nowhere to go and
very little we could do.
The train driver performed admirably in an
otherwise impossible and tragic situation. He could not avoid hitting the
minibus stuck on the tracks, but he did manage to slow the train and avoid
injuries among the train’s passengers. Silence filled the air as the train lost
power and stopped following impact. And then came a deafening organizational
silence that left us all to our own devices – in this case, smart phones,
digital radios and mobile computers – to figure out what was
For two hours, from the moment of impact until we boarded
another train, there was no official announcement or explanation about what had
happened. No statement that there had been an accident.
No request for
passengers to remain seated so as not to impede the rescue efforts. Not even a
statement that there would be an “unexpected delay.”
AND THIS is where I
started to wish for a megaphone: One that I could hand to the many security
people rushing up and down the aisles as they called for doctors or medics. Or
for the very professional staff who had to deal with the endless questions and
loudly voiced complaints of passengers focused only on their own situation and
not on the larger picture – the genuine tragedy that had just taken place. Into
this vacuum, the “Poseidon Adventure” factor began to take effect. People
started yelling at each other or into their phones, creating an atmosphere that
only made things worse.
We were all witness as the helicopter crews
arrived quickly and ran with stretchers toward the scene of the accident, only
to leave empty-handed less than 10 minutes later, as there was clearly no one who
could be saved. Everyone heard firsthand from someone who had gone to help about
the horrific sight outside.
As a seventh year medical student noted: “I
am sorry I went. There was nothing that I could have done to help, and now the
images of their smashed bodies will be with me forever.”
intrinsically Israeli way, everyone wanted to help but didn’t know how. A
megaphone would really have saved the day. When it was time to leave the train
and move to the new one that had just come from Kiryat Gat, there was no easy
way to direct people. Though paramedic crews walked the aisles looking for
people who needed assistance, the majority of passengers had to manage their way
down the steps, down the slope where the train had stopped and down the tracks
toward the new train.
There was no general announcement for those who
needed assistance to stay on the train. No orderly movement car by
Instead, young and old, with packages, suitcases and the giant
duffle bags of soldiers returning home for the weekend, all made our way in the
dark. Everyone tried to help the person next to them, catching the hand of the
stranger who was wearing the wrong shoes or too long a skirt for walking down
gravel hills, without the help of one calm voice managing the scene, moving the
crowds efficiently and quickly.
What was missing here was a director, one
person in charge of dealing with the passengers.
One person who made sure
that all the extras knew their role. It would have had a hugely calming effect
and reduced the tensions on the train. It would have kept the Shelly Winters
among us from losing control.
So please, Israel Railways managers, when
you prepare your report on this accident, please add a megaphone to your list of
future recommendations. Sadly, given the performance of Israeli drivers, this
kind of accident is likely to happen again, and your very professional staff
could use all the help it can get.The writer is director of Publications
and Media Relations at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.