'We must get to them, or else they won't get out of there'

‘The fire will reach them in a minute’: Cops recount tense hospital evacuation

Cmdr. Kobi Yaakobi says he had to make quick, tough decisions in early stages of huge blaze near Jerusalem to avoid repeat of 2010 Carmel disaster, which killed 44 people

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Israel Police Commander Kobi Yaakobi (L) and Chief Superintendent Dvir Tamim speaking to Channel 13 near the Eitanim psychiatric hospital on August 17, 2021. (Screenshot: Channel 13)
Israel Police Commander Kobi Yaakobi (L) and Chief Superintendent Dvir Tamim speaking to Channel 13 near the Eitanim psychiatric hospital on August 17, 2021. (Screenshot: Channel 13)

Shortly after this week’s huge forest fire near Jerusalem was finally brought under control, Israeli TV on Tuesday evening aired a dramatic account by senior police officers of the tense and daring evacuation of the Eitanim psychiatric hospital, which very nearly went up in flames with staff and patients still inside.

The testimony showed how close Sunday’s fast-moving blaze was to replaying a 2010 disaster in which 44 people died in the initial stages of a huge fire in the Carmel region in northern Israel.

A senior Israel Police officer in Jerusalem said he had to make snap decisions, some going against official orders, to get the hospital’s staff and 156 patients to safety.

“I saw one big flame here, and we were thinking how we get up there,” said Commander Kobi Yaakobi, speaking to Channel 13 Tuesday next to a road leading up the hill to the hospital.

Yaakobi recounted how he met an Eitanim security guard, who told him that the road was the only access point to the hospital. Police officers then called for the road to remain open even as Fire and Rescue Services officials recommended that it be closed to all traffic.

He said he met a fire official and told him: “You and I are going to the hospital now. I don’t know how, but you are getting me to the hospital. We must get to them; if we don’t, they won’t get out of there.”

A brush fire west of Jerusalem, August 15, 2021. (Ariel Kedem/Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Yaakobi eventually made the decision to enter the dense smoke with his staff and said the driver could only see half a meter (1.5 feet) ahead.

Before reaching the hospital, he said, he passed a curve in the road that reminded him of the road in the Carmel region that in 2010 became a death trap for 37 Prisons Service cadets in a bus that couldn’t make a U-turn in time. The bus driver also died in that incident, along with three firefighters and three police officers who tried to rescue the trapped bus.

With that thought in his mind, Yaakobi said in the police communication network: “The fire will reach the people in a minute. We must do everything fast. I’m getting them out in cars. I’m not waiting for any bus.”

Another senior officer at the scene was Chief Superintendent Dvir Tamim, the head of the Yasam police unit.

“The whole hospital was engulfed in smoke. It was one big chaos. Staff members, patients, all shouting,” Tamim said, adding that he called in many Yasam members to help with the evacuation.

The Eitanim psychiatric hospital on July 4, 2004. (Flash90)

Yaakobi said many frightened hospital patients were standing still, and that some actively objected to being whisked away in cars by unknown people.

“They lay down on the floor and I was forcibly getting them into cars. Some of them objected and didn’t understand who had come to evacuate them by force. And everything was being done inside smoke, with watering eyes.”

He said in the communication network that the fire was very close to the buildings and called for help from a firefighting plane.

Eventually, even though officers wanted to search the place one last time to make sure nobody was left behind, the police district commander ordered them repeatedly to leave immediately since the flames were so close to burning down the entire hospital.

The firefighting efforts ended up saving the hospital from burning, and it remained largely unharmed.

Prof. Gadi Lubin, manager of the Eitanim hospital, thanked Yaakobi and told Channel 13 that his contribution to the successful evacuation was “very, very significant.”

A forest outside Jerusalem smokes as a wildfire spreads toward the city’s southern outskirts, August 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The network also said officials believed the fire was started by arson since it was ignited in two different places near Beit Meir, in an area that doesn’t see many hikers and where no objects have been found that could have started the fire by accident.

However, no footage has yet been found of any individual starting the fire or escaping the area.

The Walla news site published video footage of the two separate hotspots at the beginning of the blaze, adding that some Beit Meir residents had been questioned by police as to whether they saw people fleeing the area.

Officially, Fire and Rescue Services chief Dedi Simchi told Channel 13 that he wasn’t yet sure the wildfire was started by arson, saying that determination can only be made by police.

Emergency services said Tuesday that they had gained full control of the flames following a three-day battle. Over 2,000 people had been evacuated from their homes since Sunday, when the fire started.

The Fire and Rescue Service said that during the 52-hour battle, forces confronted seven hotspots and that 200 units comprising 1,500 firefighters had participated in the efforts.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at Givat Ye’arim, outside Jerusalem, August 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The enormous wildfire consumed some 25,000 dunams (6,200 acres) of forest outside Jerusalem since Sunday — surpassing the scale of the Carmel fire, which burned 24,000 dunams.

Some residents lost their homes, others their life’s work.

The Prime Minister’s Office and the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council agreed on providing assistance to residents whose property was damaged in the fire, Walla reported. The council was assured that a budget will be provided for rehabilitation and that residents will be compensated for the damage.

Officials predicted a rehabilitation process that may take decades.

Firefighters had believed they managed to contain the blaze on Sunday night, but strong morning winds and low humidity on Monday sent the flames roaring back and speeding toward villages and towns throughout the hills on Jerusalem’s southwest outskirts, prompting the government to seek international aid. By Tuesday, fire chiefs said that the assistance was no longer needed.

View of burnt trees following a major fire which broke out in the Jerusalem mountains, August 17, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel has been sweltering under yet another heatwave with low humidity, providing ideal conditions for the flames to spread.

The blaze is one of the biggest in the country’s history, surpassing what had thus far been the largest in the Jerusalem area, in 1995. It has scorched vast green forest areas that include beloved hiking paths and national parks, including the Sataf site and Har Hatayasim.

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