Roi Pinhas, one of the students in the Israel Prison Service officers' course, boarded the fatal bus before the trip north. A few minutes before the bus set out, however, his classmate Shlomi Cohen invited Pinhas to join him in his own car. The two arranged to meet up with and join the others near Damon prison. Near Hadera, Cohen's car got stuck in traffic, and they arrived late.
"That was the first time in my life that I was late," said Pinhas about the delay that saved his life. "Because we were delayed, the bus decided to leave without us. I contacted Sigal Duek, who was on the bus. I could hear people around her saying that the bus should turn around. She told us not to come up, because they were coming down toward us. Five minutes later I called her again and she told me that the entire bus had burned," said Pinhas. "We tried to get near the site of the bus, but we were stopped at roadblocks. Gradually we saw that the ambulances sent to the place were returning empty. Only then did we begin to understand." The two rushed toward Rambam Medical Center, in Haifa, in the hope of meeting survivors there, but nobody arrived.
Only three of the passengers on the bus were saved: Sigal Duek and cadets Maor Peretz and Dudu Deri. The course commander, Amnon Wahabi, was also spared, as he was ahead of the bus in his own car, and managed to flee.
Forty students and teachers died on the burned-out bus. For various reasons, another 14 students in the program were not on the bus.
The victims were all members of the first class of the new IPS officers' course at the IPS Nir School in Ramle, which began on October 17 with 49 students and four commanders. The participants were supposed to study together until early January and then split up into separate tracks, finishing by March.
Last Thursday began as an ordinary day in the course, when the students were suddenly informed by commander Wahabi of the decision to evacuate Damon prison because of the spreading fire. "We ran to our rooms, took our equipment and rushed to the waiting bus," said Pinhas. Orit Stelzer, the head teacher, said that students from two other courses succeeded in reaching Damon. "While evacuating the security prisoners they heard about the tragedy and learned that their friends had burned to death. Despite the terrible news, they continued to carry out their mission with determination and devotion."
As soon as they learned of the tragedy, she said, the Nir School prepared to deal with the trauma. "The shock was terrible. The faculty members had to deal with the loss of both colleagues and the students. On the other hand, it was clear that we had to help the students who remained in the school." Participants in the course, she explained, were among the elite members of the prison service, and all had passed a qualifying exam to participate.
"Dozens of psychologists and welfare workers helped over 100 students. Because of the fires, we have to be on operational alert as well as attending the funerals." She described the IPS as being like a big family.
Pinhas also says that he "knew a very large number of the guys who were killed even before we met in the course. I was a commander and teacher and I left it in order to participate in the officers course." He says he plans to continue in the program, the moment they decide to renew it. I'm proud to be part of the IPS. It's a strong organization."
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