The driver of a bus full of tourists which plunged 60 meters into a ravine near Eilat on Tuesday has been detained by police and placed under house arrest.
The driver, Edward Gelfond, was detained immediately upon his release from hospital, where he was being treated for minor injuries.
Meanwhile, the bodies of the 24 Russian tourists killed in the crash were flown home Thursday. Draped in Russian flags, the two dozen wooden coffins were loaded by Magen David Adom medics onto a Russian cargo plane at Ben-Gurion Airport. Relatives of the victims arrived in Israel on Wednesday to identify the bodies and accompany them home.
The authorities are still trying to determine whether the accident, in which 24 Russian tour guides were killed and dozens more injured, was triggered by a row between Gelfond and a fellow driver.
Police will question Gelfond to determine the speed at which he was traveling at the time of the crash. An initial probe revealed Thursday that the speedometer on his vehicle had been broken during the accident.
Both Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and the head of the police traffic division, Maj. Gen. Avi Ben-Hamo, told a press conference Wednesday that an argument between the two drivers had caused Gelfond to lose his temper and drive recklessly, resulting in the accident.
Gelfond admitted that he had argued with Rami Vazana, the driver of the other bus, before his bus plunged down a sharp slope. However, he said he lost control of his vehicle because of a travel guidebook that accidentally fell on him while he was driving.
Vazana denied he had argued with Gelfond before the accident occurred but told Haaretz on Wednesday that Gelfond may have been angry because he overtook him at a road block.
"Mofaz is full of it," Vazana said about comments tying him to the accident. "They're trying to stick this on me and I won't let it happen."
Testimony taken from witnesses, they said, indicates that Gelfond's bus arrived at an army checkpoint near the scene of the crash first, but Vazana managed to edge around him and beat him through the checkpoint. That enraged Gelfond, who tried repeatedly to pass Vazana's bus. During one such attempt, on a dangerous curve, he lost control and hit a crash barrier, sending the bus plunging over a cliff.
"What led to the driver's mode of driving was an argument that erupted between the two drivers at the checkpoint," Mofaz declared unequivocally.
However, other police officers said they were skeptical that a quarrel played any role in the accident. Vazana, who was unhurt, denies that a quarrel took place at all, though acknowledging that Gelfond might have been angry over being passed at the checkpoint.
One senior Southern District officer said that investigators currently have no information to support the claims made by Mofaz and Ben-Hamo. Chief Superintendent Noam Bogiansky, who heads the team investigating the crash, also told reporters that "we have no testimony regarding any argument between the drivers, other than [the fact] that one vehicle passed the other at the checkpoint. Other than that there is no testimony regarding an argument or confrontation - not at the airport [where they collected the tourists] and not en route."
Giora Yehiel, a tour guide who was on one of the buses, said he witnessed no argument, only a brief conversation between the drivers at the checkpoint, in which one asked the other "...why he was going [though the checkpoint] when he hadn't yet been inspected."
"They spoke and then continued driving," Yehiel said. "They didn't quarrel. My driver just sought to understand why he [the other driver] passed him and blocked the way."
Investigators are now collecting testimony from many of the tourists before they return to Russia. Aside from the quarrel theory, police are also looking into the possibility that something fell on the driver as he was trying to pass, causing him to lose control of the bus.
One source involved in the investigation said it is still not even clear whether the driver was speeding. "But even if it turns out that he was obeying the speed limit, it's clear to us that this speed was unsuited to the road conditions at that spot," he added. "He should have adjusted his speed for the road, which is considered difficult to drive, as it is narrow and full of curves."
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