03 December 2010
A fire on the Carmel Mountain near the city of Haifa, in northern Israel, has killed at least 40 people – among them students, prison guards and firemen who were racing to evacuate the Damon prison. When a fallen tree blocked a road, their bus was trapped in the flames, killing 40 of the 50 passengers. By the early hours of Friday morning, emergency services had recovered 35 bodies, of which 22 had been identified, according to television reports. Seven survivors were left in critical condition and evacuated to Haifa hospitals. A spokesman for the firefighters told the ‘Jerusalem Post’ the blaze, which was fanned by a strong easterly wind, had traveled 1,500 meters in less than three minutes, adding that "the bus had no chance.”
The forest fire has left a trail of devastation, and Israeli authorities have so far evacuated 13,000 people living in the area, and asked for foreign assistance. Haifa Mayor Yonah Yahav said that "the flames have spread on a scale we have never seen." Magen David Adom Director General Eli Bin defined the fire as "the worst disaster in Israel's history." By midnight on Thursday, evacuation operations had spread to Denya, an affluent neighborhood on the edge of Haifa, as the flames threatened Israel's third-largest city. "We lost all control of the fire," the Haifa firefighting services spokesman told ‘Haaretz’ on Thursday. "There aren't enough firefighting resources in Israel in order to put out the fire," he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the fire a "disaster on an international scale." Israel had requested international aid to deal with the blaze, which was out of control, he said. "We do not have what it takes to put out the fire, but help is on the way. As a result of calls I have made, there are currently ten aircraft on their way to Israel from Greece, France and Cyprus," Netanyahu said.
On Friday, the first of 23 international aircraft carrying firefighters, supplies and fire retardant chemicals landed at the Ramat David Israel Air Force base in the north. The Greek plane, the first of five which are expected from the country, brought much needed fire retardant supplies and additional firefighters who will join Israeli crews battling the blaze. According to Israel’s ‘Army Radio’, in addition to four Greek aircraft, four more planes are expected to arrive from France, three from Britain, two from Spain, two from Russia, two from Turkey, two from Cyprus, two from Bulgaria, one from Croatia and one from Azerbaijan. The government of Egypt also offered to assist in firefighting efforts by supplying fire extinguishing chemicals, according to an IDF spokesperson. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said: "The Russians are sending and we are waiting for the biggest firefighting plane in the world ... an Antonov with huge firefighting capacity.”
Turkish officials in Washington said that Ankara had immediately offered to send Israel two aircraft to help stop the fire. "Israel has accepted the offer and ours was, I guess, one of the first governments to offer help," a spokesperson of the Turkish Embassy in the United States told the Israeli newspaper 'Haaretz'. In a press conference held after an emergency Cabinet meeting on Friday, Netanyahu thanked the foreign leaders for providing help. He specifically mentioned Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, whom he called a “real friend,” as well as Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin, and also Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Israel’s President Shimon Peres said: "Our hearts are in Haifa, with the firefighters that with incredible courage are battling the flames; some of them have even been injured, along with residents of the area. We are praying for a miracle. We are praying for their safety. We are praying for the fire to end."
US President Barack Obama offered his condolences to the victims and families affected by the fire. "As rescuers and firefighters continue in their work, the United States is acting to help our Israeli friends respond to the disaster," Obama said at a reception celebrating the second night of Hanukka. "A short while ago, our ambassador in Tel Aviv, Jim Cunningham, issued a disaster declaration, which has launched an effort across the US government to identify the firefighting assistance we have available and provide it to Israel as quickly as possible. Of course, that's what friends do for each other. Our thoughts and prayers are with everybody in Israel who is affected by this tragedy and the family and loved ones of those in harm’s way," Obama declared. A 747 jumbo jet loaded with the fire retardant chemical left the United States for Israel on Thursday night.
Israel has been hit by a severe draught in recent months, and November was the driest month in the last 60 years. There is speculation that the fire started on an illegal dumping ground. Mayor Yahav visited the site and said authorities had known of the illegal activity for some time. "It was just a matter of time until a calamity occurred," he said.
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