Dozens of rescuers killed in Israeli fire

By Dan Balilty

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 2 2010 11:39 a.m. MST

MEGADIM, Israel — A bus burst into flames as it raced to an Israeli prison during a massive forest fire Thursday, killing dozens of prison guards participating in the rescue mission, officials said. It was one of the deadliest accidents in the nation's history.

Fire officials said the blaze, which torched some 800 acres (325 hectares), remained out of control after nightfall.

"This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

He said the government was using all means at its disposal to contain the blaze, and he appealed to Cyprus, Italy, Russia and Greece to provide backup. His office said Greece and Cyprus agreed to send firefighting helicopters.

Fire commissioner Shimon Romach told Israel Radio that the country didn't have enough planes or helicopters, and that the available aircraft had trouble working at night.

The fire broke out around midday and quickly spread, fanned by uncharacteristic hot and dry conditions at this time of year. Israel experienced an exceptionally hot summer and has had little rain during the normally wet autumn and winter season.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the military to make all its resources available to help put out the fire and rescue the victims, according to a statement from his office. The military said it sent soldiers and equipment to the site of the fire, including helicopters, huge bulldozers, medics and army units to help with evacuation of victims.

The fire in the northern Carmel region prompted authorities to clear the area of hundreds of residents, as well as inmates from the Damun prison, many of whom are Palestinians. After nightfall, evacuation orders were issued for several more communities. Haifa University, at the edge of the stricken Carmel nature preserve, was evacuated, the university said in a statement.

Prison officials said a bus headed to Damun went up in flames. TV footage showed the charred skeleton of the bus, with several bodies lying on the ground. No inmates were reported injured.

Yaron Zamir, a spokesman for the national prison service, said the men were prison workers brought in as reinforcements from central Israel to assist in the rescue. He called it a "difficult, sad and incomprehensible day." Prison service officials told Israel Radio that the fire caught up with the bus and engulfed it.

Yoram Levy of the national fire service said the death toll from the fire was about 40, most of whom died in the bus accident. He said officials suspected the forest fire was caused by people burning garbage. Israel Radio reported that two firefighters were missing in a nearby farming community.

Eli Bin, a spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said three bus passengers were evacuated to hospitals, two in serious condition and one with minor injuries.

Israel's president, Shimon Peres, expressed sorrow for the loss of life and praised the firefighters trying to contain the blaze.

"They exemplify personal and superior bravery and we are praying for a miracle," Peres said in a ceremony marking the Hanukkah holiday. "We pray for their safety. We pray for the cessation of the fire."

Peres' office said he later spoke to the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who offered condolences.

AP writer Daniella Cheslow contributed to this report.

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