The bus driver whose vehicle swerved Wednesday in northern Israel, causing a fatal crash, had allegedly been driving dangerously on purpose in an attempt to keep the group of teenagers he was transporting quiet, a bus passenger claimed Thursday.
Five people were killed and nearly 50 were injured in the collision between the bus and multiple vehicles on Route 89 in the Upper Galilee, near the town of Hurfeish.
The fatalities include a woman and her three children: Moran Ben-Eli, 35, and kids Dekel (15), Liam (11) and Annael (5).
The family father, Reuven Ben-Eli, 36, was seriously injured in the crash and is being treated at Rambam hospital in Haifa, where he gained consciousness on Thursday and received the grim news about the death of his wife and three children.
“Since then he has been in denial, asking all the time to call his wife,” said Reuven’s brother.
The funerals for the victims were set to begin at 3 p.m. Thursday in their hometown of Maalot-Tarshiha.
The fifth fatality in the accident was bus driver Asher Basson, 76.
An initial probe Thursday concluded that the crash occurred after the bus swerved from its lane for an unknown reason and hit the side of a van. It then hit another vehicle before colliding head-on with the taxi that was carrying the Ben-Eli family. The bus tipped over on its side, causing a roadblock that lasted for hours.
Hebrew reports said that Basson had 51 previous driving convictions in his 55 years on the road, mostly for minor offenses but also including running red lights — most recently in 2017 — and seven speeding tickets, the last of which was received 20 years ago.
Police are investigating whether the bus swerved from its lane due to a technical malfunction, a human error or a medical issue.
The Ynet news site reported that police sources have noted that testimonies from the bus passengers were being used in the probe.
The bus had been transporting dozens of teenagers from the Bnei Akiva youth group back from a Sukkot field trip. Two of them were in serious condition while the majority were lightly injured.
Bnei Akiva counselor Dvir Neria, 18, told Ynet that the driver had been angry about the noise caused by the teenagers, asking several times for quiet and occasionally accelerating or slowing down suddenly to shut them up.
“There were swervings, but we didn’t think anything wasn’t okay,” Neria said. “There was talking, singing and a bit of noise and mayhem — students having fun, after all — and that really bothered the driver. He got annoyed and asked for quiet, so they stopped for a bit and then continued. There were parts where he would suddenly slam the brakes or accelerate so they would be quiet.”
Asked whether Basson was trying to send messages to the passengers using his driving, Neria said: “Yes.”
Neria, who himself was injured in the accident and hospitalized, said he believed Bnei Akiva coordinators had spoked to Basson about his driving, “but I don’t know because I didn’t hear; I was with my students and was more focused on them.”
President Isaac Herzog expressed his condolences Thursday to the victims and their families.
“Once more, our hearts are broken as the carnage on the roads claims new victims and entire worlds are wiped out. Little children who should have gone back to their classes today after the holiday break. Chairs that will remain empty, in kindergartens and schools. These deaths are not unavoidable, and we must do everything to avoid a recurrence.
“I share in the pain of the families and those praying for the wellbeing of the injured,” he added. “Drive carefully — our lives are precious.”