Police: Driver Tried to Overtake Twice Before Fatal Eilat Bus Crash

Edward Gelfond, the driver of the bus carrying Russian tourists that plunged off a cliff near Eilat last month, was speeding at the time, according to an investigation by the police's Traffic Division. Gelfond even tried to overtake vehicles twice before his final attempt in which he lost control of the bus. Twenty-four people died in the crash.

A special investigative team says the only altercation between Gelfond and another bus driver took place at the Uvda checkpoint, where Gelfond accused the second driver, Rami Vazana, of blocking him.

This contradicts comments made a few hours after the accident by Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who said there had been a confrontation between the two drivers while they were driving.

"An examination of the technograph [which records data on speed] in the bus Gelfond was driving made it clear that during the four-and-a-half-kilometer drive from the checkpoint to the site of the accident, the driver attempted to pass two other times and drove at a high speed that was not appropriate for the difficult road conditions during the trip," said the head of the special investigative team, Chief Superintendent Noam Bagaynsky.

In the month since the crash, which killed 24 Russian travel agents and injured 33, the investigators took testimony from eyewitnesses, including survivors of the plunge into the ravine and passengers from the bus driven by Vazana. The tour guide on Vazana's bus, Anatoly Vinokur, had told police of the exchange of words between the two drivers at the Uvda checkpoint.

"This was the only confrontation between the two drivers, after which Vazana carried on his way, and in light of the findings of the investigations [Vazana] drove appropriately, adjusted his speed to the road conditions and braked occasionally," said Bagaynsky.

Investigators also found that the bus' brakes, steering and airbags were all working properly at the time of the accident. Road conditions were good, and the guard rail and signs warning of a dangerous, sharp curve were found to be in order.

"Even a stronger guard rail would not have prevented the plunge by the bus because at the time of the skid and the striking of the barrier, the bus was already about to roll over and its entire weight hit the guard rail," said Commander Meir Or, the head of the traffic department at the Traffic Division.

Gelfond, who was also injured in the crash and hospitalized for a few days, was arrested upon his release from the hospital, told in court he was suspected of negligent homicide and released to house arrest in his Petah Tikva home. Or says negligent homicide is only a preliminary charge, and the police will soon pass on the investigation's results to the State Prosecution to decide on the terms of the indictment.

Gelfond could even face manslaughter charges, or 24 individual counts of negligent homicide, said a senior officer in the Traffic Division. Gelfond could receive up to three years in prison on each count, though it is also possible he will face only a single count of negligent homicide, with a maximum penalty of three years.

Gelfond found it difficult to discuss the accident yesterday when speaking to Haaretz, and refused to comment on the findings of the inquiry that blamed only him. "It is hard for me to talk about it, certainly today. I have yet to recover from what happened and I feel that I still cannot talk about it," said Gelfond.