In search of a megaphone

From the moment the train hit the minibus until we boarded another train, there was no announcement about what had happened.

Minibus 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Minibus 311
(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 pm.
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 happening.
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.”
In an 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 car.
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.