Deadliest Accident in Israel's History

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CBNNews.com - EILAT, Israel - The bus crash Tuesday, which killed 25 Russian tourists and injured 33 people, 23 seriously, was the deadliest traffic accident in Israel's history.

Most of the bus's 60 passengers were travel agents from five tour agencies in St. Petersburg, who came for business as well as vacation.

The bus was transporting the travelers, who had just landed at Ovda Airport, to Israel's southernmost resort city of Eilat, a popular winter vacation spot for Russians.

The driver, Edward Gelfond, 39, hospitalized in serious condition, has a record of 22 traffic citations in his 20-year driving history. He has a valid commercial driver's license.

According to eyewitnesses, Gelfond had passed one bus at recklessly high speed and was preparing to pass another when the bus veered off the road, plunging down a 45-foot embankment.

From his hospital bed, the driver said something fell on him, causing him to lose control on the steep, winding road to Eilat, which is heavily marked by caution signs.

According to Israel's Channel 2, Gelfond said he had not exceeded the 70 kilometers per hour (43.5 mph) speed limit.

The fatalities and most serious injuries were to passengers flung out of the careening bus, while those who were still in the bus were somewhat better off.

On Tuesday evening, Israeli President Shimon Peres told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that Israelis feel "as if this tragedy happened to us."

"The pain is felt by all of Israel," Peres told the Russian president.

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in London at the time of the accident, added his condolences, calling the accident "unusual in its severity."

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni also spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Meanwhile, police said remarks by Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz -- that the accident resulted from an argument between two bus drivers -- were premature. Mofaz also criticized the leniency in the court system with traffic offenders.

"There was no dispute," said Rami Vazana, the driver of the bus that was passed, who recounted the events that preceded the accident.

"He [Gelfond] was in front of me in the beginning," Vazana said. "When we reached the Netafim roadblock, he was held up. One of the soldiers boarded the bus…and gave me the go-ahead first. I began to drive down the descending road slowly and carefully, as you should," he said.

"Meanwhile, the bus behind me tried to overtake me. But the road began to bend, and he couldn't make the turn. He crashed into the safety barrier and plunged down the cliff. I stopped the bus and three of us went down, carrying bottles of water. It was a terrible sight. We left the water bottles there and went back up to the buses because our passengers were in a terrible panic and wanted me to take them to their hotels. We took them to their hotels and that was that," he said.

Tuesday's tragic accident goes on record for the highest death toll in Israel's history. In 1985, 18 children and two adults died when a train hit a bus stalled on a track, while 1999, 16 people were killed in a bus accident in the north.

Sources: Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post

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