train fire Moti Milrod
Fire breaks out on Israel Railways near Shfayim on December 28, 2010 Photo by Moti Milrod
Text size

The majority of the some 100 passengers injured on Tuesday after a fire broke out on an Israel Railways train close to the central Israeli town of Shfayim, suffered from cuts and scrapes after they were forced to break the windows and pry open doors with their hands in order to escape.

Eyewitnesses who fled the flames in the first few minutes after it began said the doors did not open automatically as they are supposed to and they had no choice but to open them manually. A number of passengers broke through the windows with their hands or random objects, and a Border Police officer shot through the glass to enable people to jump out of the burning train car.

After the incident, which was apparently sparked due to a short electrical wire in back engine, many asked immediately why the train was lacking the relevant equipment needed for emergency situations - such as hammers near the windows for smashing.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said following the incident that he planned to coordinate a panel of experts to investigate the state of affairs that led to the large number of injuries – which totaled 116.

Israel Railways Chairman Yitzhak Harel denied that the train was ill-equipped, explaining that there is a special way to open the doors during an emergency. Most of the passengers were panicking and so were not able to do so in the proscribed way, he said. The doors began to melt as time passed so the passengers had to wait for rescue services to let them out, he added.

"The stress from being caught in a fire means those who are not accustomed to finding the door handles may not be able to," Harel said.

"In order to open the doors in a time of emergency there is a [special] door handle, and one needs to know about it to use it. The rescue team on site opened the doors at their locations."

"In a scary incident passengers are not expected to know that there are emergency door handles or how to find them," Harel said, adding: "There are instructions, but I do not expect people under pressure to read it."

Harel said that the goal in emergencies is to get the passengers out of the train unharmed, and the crew lived up to that task.

The passengers who escaped the flames said that they did in fact try to use the emergency handles, however, but the doors had already melted and stuck together. Eyewitnesses said that the doors were to hot to touch.

The Border Police officer who used his weapon to shoot at the window said he was forced to use his weapon after several failed attempts to break the glass and the passengers around him began choking on the smoke and panicking.

Eyewitnesses described a chaotic scene in which people were forced to break windows to save their own lives.

"Suddenly we heard screaming that [the train] was on fire," a young woman named Hannan told Haaretz. "At first they said there were gunshots and everyone started panicking. People did not wait for the doors to open and some of them began busting open the windows of the car."

Five people were moderately hurt in the incident the rest were treated for light injuries, including smoke inhalation, burns, cuts and shock. All of the passengers were evacuated quickly after people began breaking the glass windows and prying open doors to escape.

"We saw the fire creeping out of the back of the train. We didn't know what had happened," she added. "People simply ran outside in hysteria. For a moment we didn't know where we were, in this open area with nowhere to run. There were ditches on both sides and it took a few long minutes before the first rescue forces arrived."

"I saw some people whose hands were covered in blood from breaking the windows, but as far as I could tell, there were no serious injuries," said Hannan. "Most of the casualties were just in shock."

According to Hannan, the train operators gave no instruction on how or when to evacuate over the course of the event. "Things only came together when the police came," she said.

Another eyewitness, Ofir Steinfeld, said that the passengers' quick escape had prevented a real disaster. "If we had stayed two more minutes we would have been trapped there," he said. "The minute we got off the train there was an explosion, I don't know what from, maybe the plastic, and it startled many people who started to run in the direction the train was traveling."

In addition to breaking windows, Steinfeld said passengers had to pry the train doors open after they failed to do so automatically.

Rescue workers confirmed that all passengers had been evacuated. It took firefighters nearly an hour to control the blaze, which apparently began in the back engine and spread to three cars.