Three meters between life and death

The harrowing account of a 'Yediot Aharonot' photographer who was caught in the Carmel blaze, and of the mother whose daughter he saved.

Roni Sofer 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Roni Sofer 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Three meters. That was the difference between life and death for Prisons Service cadets whose bus was engulfed by fire as it raced to help evacuate Damun Prison inmates when the Carmel forest blaze erupted on Thursday.
Three meters, and the choices made in split seconds amid unimaginable horror.
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On Army Radio on Sunday, Ruti Gondani, whose daughter Sigal was one of the handful of the officers on the bus to make it out alive, “met” over the airwaves with Roni Sofer, the Yediot Aharonot photographer who rescued her. And their conversation underlined what Ruti called Sigal’s “miraculous” escape, and the hair’s breadth that separated her daughter from the tragedy that befell almost 40 of her colleagues.
Sofer, who had been out taking photographs all that day, found himself in the Beit Oren area. Looking for fresh angles from which to photograph the spreading blaze, he inadvertently found himself driving into it.
As he drove forward, believing himself to be far from the fire’s focus, he said, his car was being followed by a vehicle from Beit Oren and then by the car driven by Lior Boker, a police officer who was soon to die in the blaze. After a journey of a few hundred meters, said Sofer, the prisons service bus also joined the convoy, followed in turn by the car of Haifa police chief Ahuva Tomer, who is now in critical condition in the hospital, having been terribly burned in the blaze.
“The road was completely clear,” said Sofer, but then, seconds later, the winds changed, “and a wall of fire blocked the road... We all reversed.”
But the flames and the smoke were everywhere, Sofer recalled.
Gondani said her daughter Sigal had told her that the bus driver opened at least one of his vehicle’s doors and the prison guards scrambled to try to escape. “Someone got out ahead of her,” she said of Sigal.
“Her friend was with her. She didn’t even know where she was running.”
What saved Sigal, said her mother, was that amid the flames, “she followed the road.”
Many of the other victims evidently ran into the blazing forest.
Sigal ran forward along the road amid the flames and, along with two other guards, happened to come across Sofer and his jeep. “You saved my daughter’s life,” Gondani told Sofer over the radio.
“It was a split-second decision,” said Sofer.
“You saved yourself and three others,” Sigal’s mother said. “It was a miracle.”
Sofer said he had an instant in which to decide what to do – whether he could do anything to save the people on the bus, whether to drive on, which way to head.
Gondani said Sigal, who spent Sunday going from funeral to funeral of her dead colleagues, had shouted at Sofer: “Drive.
Drive through the fire. Drive through the flames.”
And he did. “The difference between getting out and dying was three meters,” he said.
“People three meters behind us were killed.”
Dan Amir, a local photographer who saw and photographed the tragedy unfolding beneath him from a nearby hillside, said Sunday that the walls of fire were “dozens of meters high.” The blaze, he said, “was racing faster than any human can run. They didn’t stand a chance.”
Saved from the blaze, Gondani said, her daughter watched the ambulances racing in toward the stricken bus and waited to see her colleagues being brought out for medical treatment. “She kept asking, ‘where are they? Where are they?’” said her mother. But there was no one to save.