Amongst the fear that took hold of passengers on the train that went up in flames Tuesday, one moment of cold-minded thinking saved many lives: One Border Guard officer decided to shoot at the windows and thus open the way for escape. Some 121 people were injured in the incident, mostly sustaining cuts and bruises, and some from smoke inhalation.
Despite rumors that were quick to take wing, police do not suspect any intentional arson or attack, and all signs point to a technical failure. At first Israel Railways said it seemed an engine had caught fire at the rear of the train, which was of a type without a main locomotive, and its engines were integrated into the carriages. Israel Railways director said the fire was probably caused by an electrical short.
Now, an initial investigation by the Netanya fire station investigators has revealed that the fire broke out as a result of a diesel oil tank leak. Investigators estimated that the oil leaked from a tank that was underneath the compartment and placed near the engine, which is why a fire broke out.
"The initial investigation has led us to suspect that the leak occurred before and during the trip, the fire broke out and began to spread before the train stopped," said Netanya Fire Station Commander Itzhik Shilan. He admitted that this was a serious incident that could have ended in a bitter disaster, with many casualties.
Netanya Police Chief Commander Ami Ashad also said that the main direction of the investigation was mechanical failure. He stated that the investigators would first summon Israel Railways officials to a general inquiry where they would not be under warning, and afterwards they would decide how to proceed with their investigation. Ashad stressed that the train was in good repair, approved by the Transportation Ministry.
Border Guard officer Salman Amar is unlikely to forget this journey. In a moment of clear thinking, amid the flames and the general panic, Amar fired at the windows. "The flames were around us in all directions, and the doors didn't open," he said. "When I saw we had no way of escaping, I fired in order to do all I could to assist the passengers."
"I tried to break the windows using my rifle butt," said Amar, who was on his way from Acre to his base in the West Bank. "When I saw I wasn’t succeeding, I fired at the windows. They shattered with the shot, then I simply grabbed the passengers and began shoving them out of the window."
"The flames and smoke surrounded us completely," he added. "If I hadn't had done that, it would have ended in disaster."
He nevertheless remains humble when speaking about his brave act. "Whoever wishes can write 'hero of the day', but as far as I'm concerned there's a god above."
Amar, who was lightly injured, added: "Had I not done this I would have burned. I wouldn't be speaking to you right now. Not me or any other person there."
He further noted, "In such a case, you don’t think, you just do. First of all, save lives. After I fired I helped people jump out."
One of the injured, Fadi Katam, related how he helped the soldier to break the windows. "There was panic everywhere," he said. "People were trampling each other. I tried to break the window with anything that came to hand, and when we had managed to break one we realized it was double-glazed, and the outer one was tougher. Then some of the soldiers and police fired at them to shatter them."
"Some of the fire extinguishers didn't work and there weren't enough hammers," noted Katem, a Haifa resident who travels each day to his work in Tel Aviv. "I felt we were trapped in the train like the prison cadets had been trapped in the burning bus on Mount Carmel."
After the passengers had got out, Katam said, one of the passengers shouted, "My baby is in the train." "I and another soldier went back quickly into the carriage, and luckily we saw an empty baby stroller and realized someone else had already taken the baby out," he said.
At about 9:20 am another train passed the burning train near Kibbutz Yakum. According to Netanya police chief Ami Eshed, the driver told his colleague that a fire had broken out on his train, and then the second driver saw the warning lights that had begin flashing. Initial investigations reveal that members of the train's security staff were the first to press the emergency brake.
"The guards who were on the train saw smoke, pressed the emergency button and began evacuating the passengers," Eshed said. Police combed the train to try to identify the cause of the fire. "We have no indication it was anything other than a fire," he said. "I know there were rumors about another kind of incident, but that's not the case. It's just a fire."
"There are many technical issues that must be investigated," he continued. "We'll do thorough work with Israel Railways."
Yoav Zitun contributed to this report.