In Aftermath of Fatal Crash, Tourists and Locals Come to Terms With Tragedy

There was hardly a single driver who did not stop his or her vehicle yesterday at the dangerous turn on the road between Ovda and Eilat where a bus accident Tuesday killed 24 people and injured 31 more.

The victims, mostly visiting Russian travel agents, were killed when the bus they were riding in tried to overtake another bus and plunged into a ravine.

Motorists, including soldiers and tourists, stopped for several minutes to survey the area, struggling to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy that had taken place there the day before.

Meanwhile, the 11 Russian tourists in the other bus - the one that had been driving in front - continued with their planned itinerary, touring Eilat with guide Anatoly Vinocur, the branch manager of Travelux agency, who oversaw the groups' arrival in Israel.

Yesterday afternoon maintenance workers arrived at the accident scene to collect items strewn about among the wreckage - window frames, glass shards, rubber gloves left behind by rescue crews and small personal items thrown from the bus as it tumbled down the slope.

Eilat police, investigating the circumstances of the accident with the traffic police's special investigations unit, led by Major General Avi Ben-Hemo, refused to comment yesterday on Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz's harsh comments on the cause of the accident.

Mofaz said the accident was caused by a dispute between the drivers of the two buses immediately before the fateful turn, and that both displayed negligence behind the wheel.

Heading the investigative team is Chief Superintendent Noam Baiganski, the head of the traffic police's accident department. Assisting him are traffic investigators and experts who recreated the crash yesterday, calling the accident "one of the most difficult" they had ever seen.

According to Mofaz's remarks, an argument erupted between the two bus drivers at Netafim roadblock, after which both began driving "competitively."

A soldier manning the roadblock at the time, however, told Haaretz, "the drivers came one after the other. At first the bus came through with 50 passengers [the one carrying the travel agents], and we inspected it. In the meantime, another bus came, and stopped next to it. When we had finished checking the first bus, the Russian driver asked the second one to clear the path for him so he could continue, but he didn't move. The driver then complained to the tour guide in Russian about it."

The soldier said the second driver continued driving, and the first bus followed immediately after him. "A few minutes later, a car arrived from the direction of Eilat, and told us one of the buses had fallen into the wadi."

Busines as usual

At Travelux in Eilat, employees tried to carry on with business as usual. Still, Vinocur's account of the accident shocked all those who heard it.

"We waited for the group of 49 travel agents and 11 tourists at Ovda. The agents boarded the bus with the guide and driver, and I took the tourists on the other bus," Vinocur said. "When we got to the roadblock the first bus stopped for inspection, and ours stood beside it. While I told the tourists about the road to Eilat, the driver of the second bus turned to us and asked that we move backwards so he could continue driving, but our driver stayed where he was."

Vinocur said a dispute then erupted between the two drivers. "Not a big fight - he asked to move the bus, said something to the driver, and that was it."

At that stage, Vinocur said, the bus he was riding in left the roadblock in front of the second bus.

"At a certain point our driver braked a little, because of the road, and suddenly I looked to the side and saw the second bus beside us in the middle of the turn. It was stuck in the sand at the curb, and from there it went down," he said.

Vinocur said the tourists on his bus "wanted to get off, but I warned them not to, because I didn't want them to see what happened to the other bus's passengers."