JERUSALEM — Police investigating a bus accident that killed 24 Russian tourists traveling to Eilat reportedly will look at driver error and mechanical failure as the likely causes.
The bus plunged down a 45-foot embankment Tuesday afternoon to the bottom of a riverbank north of Eilat after flipping over several times. Some 33 people were injured, many in serious condition.
In its initial investigation, the Transporation Ministry said the bus was driving at some 80 kilometers, about 50 miles per hour — an accelerated speed considering the dangerous curves on the road. The probe also revealed that minutes before the accident, the driver was involved in an altercation with another bus driver.
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said investigators suspect that the two drivers argued over who would cross an army barrier first. Shortly afterward the tour bus overtook the other bus before the driver lost control of the vehicle and crashed.
The crash was "the result of aggressive behavior on the part of drivers," Mofaz told the Israeli news site Ynet.
The driver of another bus who stopped at the scene told officials that the tour-bus driver was driving fast and erratically, then attempted a dangerous pass before losing control, hitting a guardrail and falling over the side of the ravine.
"He ran out of road," a witness told Israel’s Channel 1.
The Mitzpe-Ramon-Eilat road is narrow and full of sharp curves and steep drops, though it is paved.
The tour-bus driver, who was injured, told Channel 2 that he lost control of the bus when something fell on him as he attempted to pass another vehicle. He also said he was driving below the speed limit of 70 kilometers, or 43 miles, per hour.
The 39-year-old driver, who received his license in 2001, had 22 traffic violations, Ynet reported Tuesday night. The tour was operated by the Israeli company Travelux.
Television footage minutes after the accident showed bodies covered in white shrouds lining the bottom of the riverbank. Some were still strapped to stretchers.
Helicopters evacuated the injured as dozens of Magen David Adom ambulances with lights flashing arrived on the scene. A few yards away, firefighters hosed down the bus laying on its side.
The passengers — travel agents on an organized visit to Israel, according to Israel’s Immigration Absorption Ministry — had arrived just hours before from St. Petersburg and were on their way to Eilat for vacation.
Russia was set to send two planes to Israel on Tuesday night, bringing family members of the crash victims to Israel, as well as medical personnel, psychiatrists and social workers.
At least six people had been trapped in the bus. Some were thrown from the windows as it fell, according to witnesses. Parts of the bus lined the bottom of the ravine amid mounds of clothing and scattered pages of travel itineraries.
"It is the worst, simply the worst," a witness on the scene told Channel 1.
The Health Ministry put out a call shortly after the accident asking any medical personnel vacationing in the area to rush to Eilat’s Yosephtal Hospital to assist in triage. Many answered the call, according to a reporter for Kol Israel radio. Forty nurses attending a conference in the resort town also reported to the hospital, according to local media.
As the small hospital is not equipped to handle such large-scale traumas, some of the injured were transferred to Beersheba’s Soroka Hospital.
Military medical personnel stationed at several Israeli army bases in the area also rushed to the scene and began treating the injured.
Police representatives appearing on Channel 1 decried the fact that the tour bus was not equipped with seat belts. New buses in Israel are required to have seat belts.
If the passengers on the tour bus had been equipped with the safety belts, many more would have walked away from the accident, said Dan Link of the national safety board in an interview on Channel 1.
According to the Israeli driver safety organization Or Yarok, 406 people died on Israel’s roads since the beginning of 2008, before Tuesday’s crash.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent his condolences to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and to the families of the victims.
In his message, Olmert said that even though Israel experiences vehicle deaths daily, the number of those killed and injured in Tuesday’s accident was "exceptional in its severity."
"It obligates us, especially during the week in which we mark the issue of road safety, to reconsider the culture of driving in Israel, mutual responsibility on the roads and the need to specially train drivers who transport large numbers of people," Olmert said.