'Minibus ran through barrier'

Officials: Minibus ignored warnings in Kiryat Gat train collision.

train crash 311 (photo credit: Channel 10)
train crash 311
(photo credit: Channel 10)
In response to Thursday's train collision with a minibus at a railroad crossing north of Kiryat Gat which left seven people dead and 20 injured, Israel Railways Director-General Yitzhak Harel said the punishment for drivers who break through railroad crossings is not harsh enough, in a Friday interview with Israel Radio.
"Only last week, five drivers broke train barriers," Harel said, "and their punishment was just a fine of hundreds of shekels. The punishment should be harsher."
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Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz called the phenomenon of barrier-breakers "intolerable lawlessness," on Israel Radio Friday. He added that he plans to further punish drivers with over five traffic violations by confiscating their licenses and vehicles.
The names of the fatalities were released on Friday morning: Aryeh Berstein, 43, his wife Rivka Bernstein, 41, and their children Mordechai, age 9, Chaya, 14 and Yochanan, 16, all from Beitar Illit. Their pregnant daughter Malki Gotstein, 21, was also killed, together with her one-and-a-half-year-old son, Mordechai.
Their funeral is planned for 10:30 Friday morning.
Malki Gotstein's husband, Dudi Gotstein, is the only family member to survive the crash, and is in moderate condition. Gotstein is in intensive care in the Barzilai hopsital in Ashkelon, with broken bones as well as tears in his liver and spleen. He reportedly has not been notified of his wife and son's deaths, and will not attend their funeral.
Eight other people have been hospitalized with injuries, including the minibus's driver, who is in the Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva in moderate condition.
Zaka spokesman Moti Bukjin said that the team that came to identify the bodies were horrified to discover that they knew the victims: Aryeh Bernstein, the head of the family, who died along with his wife, his pregnant daughter and her husband, and his three other children, was himself a Zaka volunteer.
All the casualties were on the minibus, which, according to initial police findings, smashed through the railroad barrier and onto the tracks just before the train’s arrival. Katz said he was certain the minibus driver was to blame.
The driver, who survived, was a neighbor of the Bernstein family.
The crash occurred at 7 p.m. slightly north of the Kiryat Gat train station. All the minibus passengers were injured to varying degrees and were evacuated by helicopters and ambulances to regional hospitals. People on the southbound passenger train suffered only minor bruises as a result of the emergency braking and the collision.
Giora Weiss, the train driver, told Channel 2 that he had spotted the minibus moving quickly toward the track from 200 meters away and immediately pressed the emergency brake, but neither vehicle could stop in time.
“The minibus was traveling too fast to stop at the barrier. Instead of coming to a halt at the barrier, he stopped on the tracks,” Harel said from the scene.
“Apparently the driver was talking to his passengers,” the director-general continued.
“He didn’t realize at all that he was approaching the checkpoint. When he saw he was in danger, instead of moving forward, he stopped on the tracks.”
The train dragged the minibus hundreds of meters down the track, eyewitnesses said.
Bukjin recounted that “when [the ZAKA volunteers] realized the identity of the deceased, they understood that we were dealing in a double tragedy as far as we’re concerned.
“Zaka volunteers are often called in to gruesome and horrifying scenes, and the public probably considered us as tried and tested and immune to the pain of seeing tragedy unfold. But we are not immune to pain, and on the scene I saw a couple of the volunteers standing to the side and shedding a tear for our friend Aryeh,” he said.
According to Israel Police Southern District head Cmdr. Yochanan Danino, who also came to the crossing, the accident was caused by the minibus driver, who broke through the railroad barrier despite it being down and despite the warning signals.
“As far as we can tell, the minibus broke through the barrier and was hit by the train. The police will be conducting a thorough investigation to determine the precise cause of this tragic accident,” Danino said.
He added that initial interviews with witnesses from the train, and with passengers from the minibus who were well enough to make statements, strengthened the suspicion that the driver had ignored the warnings.
Zaki Heller, a spokesman for Magen David Adom, said it was one of the worst disasters the organization had dealt with in recent years.
According to Harel, the crash was unavoidable once the minibus broke through the barrier.
“It takes a train moving at 130 kilometers per hour 700 m. to arrive at a complete stop. The train driver pressed the emergency brake as soon as he saw the vehicle on the track, but was unable to stop in time. There was nothing he could do,” he said.
“Unfortunately, these types of accidents take place far too often as a result of drivers ignoring the law,” Harel went on. “A complete solution to these collisions is constructing track overpasses, and these exist on most of the railroad crossings across the country. Indeed, such an overpass is currently being built on this exact interchange, but has yet to be completed. In the meantime, Israel Railways has a spotter on the track. In any case, drivers must adhere to the rules of the road.”
Israel Railways brought a backup train for the remaining passengers.
As a result of the crash, train traffic between Tel Aviv and Beersheba was halted. Israel Railways hired buses to replace train services.