25 Russian tourists dead as bus falls into ravine

In worst traffic accident in nation's history, 'reckless' driver loses control on road to Eilat

ambulances 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
ambulances 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
In the deadliest traffic accident in the nation's history, 25 Russian travel agents were killed and dozens seriously hurt when their tour bus plunged into a ravine near Eilat on Tuesday afternoon, police said. The bus driver had reportedly attempted to speed past another tour bus on a twisting road in a no-passing zone, crashed through a guardrail and then rolled 80 meters down the slope, overturning again and again in mid-air before hitting the bottom of the desert ravine. Some of the passengers were flung out of the bus. Evacuating the injured from the bottom of the ravine took nearly an hour. "We need doctors here," was shouted over and over as first-aid was administered to dozens of injured people. The ground was lined with body bags. Thirty-three people were hurt, including 23 in serious condition. The 39-year-old bus driver, who sustained serious injuries, had 22 prior traffic convictions. While police officers said that was not unusual for someone who has been on the road for 20 years, they also said they believe he drove at a dangerously high speed for such a winding road. But the driver told reporters on Tuesday night that "something fell" on him while he was attempting to pass the other vehicle, causing him to lose control. His 60 passengers, representatives from five tour agencies on a scouting trip to Israel, were all from St. Petersburg, and had just landed at the nearby Ovda Airport. They were on the way to their hotels in Eilat - a popular destination for tourists trying to escape the Russian winter. There was chaos at the scene of the accident, with the bodies of victims lying on the ground and debris scattered everywhere. Dozens of ambulances rushed to the site, which eyewitnesses said seemed like the scene of a massive terrorist attack or a combat zone. The air force dispatched six helicopters to evacuate the seriously injured to hospitals across the country. After the accident was reported, the Health Ministry called on doctors and nurses vacationing in the Eilat area to volunteer and help the relatively small staff of the city's Josephthal Hospital in treating the victims. Dozens of medical staffers responded to the call. Scores of soldiers and officers who were returning from vacations were the first to tend to the injured. "We started going one by one to see who had a pulse and to treat the injured," said Lt.-Col. Ori, who was one of the first at the scene. "We deal with rescue on a day-to-day basis in our exercises and I am very proud of the way my soldiers acted in real life," he said, noting that "not a few" of his soldiers are native Russian speakers and were able to communicate with the more lightly injured passengers. He added that the more seriously injured victims of the crash were those who were thrown out of the bus, while those who were still inside were generally in better condition. The steep road winding to Eilat is dotted with signs warning drivers to be careful. An eyewitness said the bus was speeding recklessly when it veered off the road. "The bus overtook in a reckless manner while speeding, went out to overtake another bus - I saw him and he almost overtook me - suddenly he turned left and then dropped," the eyewitness told Israel Radio. "I was in shock. I'm turning this over in my head - these things happen in the worst scenarios," the eyewitness said. President Shimon Peres spoke Tuesday evening with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, sent the country's deepest condolences, and said "we feel as if this tragedy happened to us." Peres said that while the accident was caused by the mistake of one person, "the pain is felt by all of Israel." He wished a speedy recovery to all the injured and said Israel would give them good and immediate care. Medvedev, according to Peres' office, thanked the country's rescue and medical professionals for their efforts, and said he hoped that with full cooperation between the two countries, the lives of those injured would be saved. Medvedev said that Russia would send assistance to Israel to deal with the tragedy if it was needed. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on a visit to Britain, sent Israel's condolences to Russia. Israel faced road accidents every day, but "the crash that took place today is unusual in its severity," Olmert said. "We need to rethink the driving culture in Israel, the mutual responsibility on the roads, and the need to train drivers who transport large numbers of people," he said. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, speaking with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, expressed her condolences and said Israel would do everything it could to assist the injured and their families. The two agreed to remain in contact regarding everything that has to do with the accident. Michel Elkaslasy, the owner of the company that rented the bus to the tourists' travel agency, said the driver apparently lost control while trying to pass the first bus. "The sight is horrible. I see bodies scattered everywhere," he said from the scene. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who visited the scene of the accident, said that the crash had been caused by the driver arguing with another bus driver about who would go through a checkpoint first, which led to attempts to pass each other. "The drivers were bullying each other. There aren't infrastructure problems on the road," Mofaz said. The passengers' luggage was tossed into a pile nearby the crash site. The driver, who is hospitalized, is not a resident of the area and apparently did not know the roads well, police said. Thousands of Russian tourists were expected to visit Eilat during this winter following the recent lifting of visa requirements for citizens of that country, with as many as 30,000 expected to fly direct to the resort city by the end of April. The Russian news agency Interfax reported Tuesday that Russia would send two planes to Israel on Tuesday night, one carrying family members of the crash victims, and the second transporting medical personnel, psychiatrists and social workers. Magen David Adom opened a Russian-language information line for relatives living abroad of the tourists killed and injured in the accident. It is +972-3-734-4013. The Tourism Ministry in Jerusalem also opened a situation room to deal with telephone inquiries. The number is (02) 666-4358 from inside Israel, and +972-2-666-4358 from abroad. The bus plunge took the highest death toll for a single accident in Israel's history. In June 1985, a train plowed into a bus that was stalled on the tracks, killing 18 children and three adults. In 1999, 16 people were killed in an accident similar to Tuesday's, in the North. Since the beginning of 2008, at least 432 people have been killed in accidents on the country's roads, surpassing the 415 killed last year, according to the National Road Safety Authority. Judy Siegel and Herb Keinon contributed to this report.