A natural gas explosion in the center of Netanya claimed the lives of four people on Thursday night and injured about 90 others. The conduct of the fire service, police and local municipality have been questioned after it was reported that the three government agencies had all received reports about the strong smell of natural gas in the area in the hours prior to the blast.
The blast took place in a building in Atzmaut Square. Three young immigrants from France, who were distributing Sabbath candles, and an employee of a schwarma restaurant were killed in the explosion.
The fire service said a fire truck did not go to the scene because the municipality canceled the request two minutes after it was received, saying that a gas company repair technician was checking it out instead.
Hundreds of members of the French community in Netanya attended the funerals Friday of two of the three French immigrants: Rebecca Msihid, 17, and Stacey Barukh, 18. They were killed along with their friend, Rebecca Dorai, 18. The fourth fatality was Muhammed Abu Attar, 28, from Kafr Kara, in the Wadi Ara area in the north, who was also buried Friday. Dorai will be buried today at noon in Netanya.
The three young Frenchwomen immigrated to Israel together four years ago along with their families. Earlier Thursday evening they had attended a regular class, sponsored by the French-speaking community's Chabad branch near the site of the explosion. Afterward they went to eat with other friends and to distribute Sabbath candles on Atzmaut Square. Chabad rabbi Yaakov Mazuz said the girls usually distributed candles on Fridays but decided this time to do it Thursday night.
Abu Attar was due to be married soon and had just bought a wedding suit. He had been working for about two months at a schwarma restaurant in the building where the gas explosion occurred. Relatives said he also lived in the building. He had a twin brother and an older, 30-year-old brother. The three had lost their father at a young age and had supported themselves, a relative said.
Sharon Police commander Shimon Shomroni has said the police will examine recordings of emergency calls placed to the Israel Police, the fire service and the Magen David Adom rescue service to determine what happened from the time of the first emergency call to the time of the blast, to see if negligence was involved.
Police rejected speculation that the blast was an effort to harm members of the Abutbul reputed crime family, who operate a number of businesses in the building. Nonetheless, it is not yet certain what caused the gas leak and subsequent explosion.
The ground floor of the building had storage for a ton of natural gas in addition to gas canisters with another half ton of fuel. It is thought the gas leaked from one or another storage facility.
The initial report of a problem came at about 3.30 P.M. Thursday, when someone alerted police on the square of a suspicious man who, according to the report, had been messing with gaslines a short time earlier. Police detained the suspect, 46-year-old Netanya resident Rahamim Gueta, for questioning, after which he was initially put under house arrest. When detained, he had several pieces of copper pipe in his possession.
At 4.30 P.M. police and the municipality received reports of a strong smell of gas around the building and gas technician Yisrael Daniel, a resident of Ra'anana, was dispatched to the scene. As far as is known, he found broken wires which he soldered together and left at about 6.30 P.M. Shortly after midnight, police and fire services received additional reports of the smell of gas and dispatched personnel, but the explosion occurred before they arrived.
Arrest warrants were issued against both Daniel and Gueta. The Petah Tikva District Court has extended their detention until Wednesday. Gueta is suspected of manslaughter, theft, intentionally damaging property and possession of a knife, on the contention that he deliberately damaged gas lines. Police said Gueta has a long police record. Daniel is being held under suspicion of manslaughter and negligence in his work at the site.
Gueta's lawyer from the public defender's office, Tirtsa Keinan Shacham, said her client denies the accusations against him, noting that Gueta had been released earlier on Thursday due to lack of evidence. Daniel's lawyer, Nati Simhoni, said his client had 25 years' experience and had acted properly.
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