For the 150 hospital patients and staff watching the fire approach, all seemed lost. The wooded setting of the psychiatric institution in the hills outside Jerusalem, usually a serene retreat from the outside world, had become a coffin. Unless rescue forces somehow found a way to them through the towering flames outside, they would soon all be dead.
“No words can truly describe the disaster and the war we were actually in,” staff member Amira Ibrahim recalled. “All we could do at that moment was raise our hands to the sky and say, ‘God, save us.’ There was nothing we could do.”
While some called loved ones to say goodbye, others did what little they could to try and keep the flames away and maintain calm among the patients, as aerial rescue forces trying to reach them struggled to navigate the rugged landscape through the smoke.
“People said: ‘We are going to say goodbye.’ We stood together and said it was all over,” said Anat Revach, another staff member. “We said that either we burn here or the flames get us on the road — and just then there came the call: We’re evacuating.”
The eventual rescue of the hospital’s patients and staff by four police officers who risked their lives to reach the hilltop compound and get the group to safety was still fresh in the minds of those who had been there when they reunited days later, recalling for Israel’s Channel 13 news the harrowing plight they found themselves in on Sunday night, in the early stages of what would become one of Israel’s largest wildfires ever.
The four police officers who took part in the rescue mission will get medals of honor from Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, Hebrew media reported Thursday. The officers are Commander Kobi Yaakobi, Chief Superintendent Dvir Tamim, Commander Ronen Ovadia and Superintendent Munir Bader.
“I won’t forget the moment when I came in and she ran to me, we looked each other in the eyes and it was like I was telling her, it will be okay from now. It was without talking,” Yaakobi said, speaking of meeting a staff member for the first time after the rescue.
Security camera footage aired by the channel showed how close the flames had been to the hospital’s buildings, drawing instantaneous parallels to the 2010 Carmel fire in northern Israel, which killed 44 people.
תיעוד ממצלמות האבטחה: הלהבות מקיפות את בית החולים איתנים מכל הכיוונים, הרוח עוצמתית, אבל אזור החיץ נטול העשביה מציל את המקום מכליה pic.twitter.com/lQ1tPuiPat
— עמרי מניב omri maniv (@omrimaniv) August 18, 2021
“I was seeing staff members calling their families and saying farewell, because they were seeing the Carmel disaster in front of their eyes,” said staff member Shoshana Abramov.
Back then, a road 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.
An aerial photo of the area showed how the hospital compound was the only unburned soil in the entire area, again demonstrating how close the incident was to being a major tragedy that would have dwarfed even the Carmel disaster.
זו תמונה של בית החולים "איתנים" שפונה במבצע מורכב לפני מס' ימים.
אני מסתכל בה ומתמלא הערכה ללוחמי האש, לצוות בית החולים, לבתי החולים שקלטו את המטופלים, לגורמים המטפלים במשרד הבריאות ולמטופלים עצמם.
צילום: גלעד תדהר pic.twitter.com/wXnaTllPcZ
— shimon burshtein (@ShimonBurshtein) August 18, 2021
“Imagine you’re inside a circle and there’s fire all around, and it’s getting closer and closer, and you’re hearing the helicopters and know they can’t land, and you can hear in the communications network that the buses are down [the hill] and can’t go up,” said Abramov.
Staff member Adnan Barhoum told Channel 13 that after escorting groups of patients, he was helping another doctor keep the flames away when his son and wife both called him.
“I didn’t have time to answer them, I was busy,” he said.
The report said all the patients were gathered together outside and started moving together according to the changing winds to avoid the smoke and the heat. Staff had the patients call out their names in order just to keep them busy and feel something was being done.
Earlier this week, Yaakobi said he had to make snap decisions, some going against official orders, to get the hospital’s staff and patients to safety.
“I saw one big flame here, and we were thinking how we get up there,” said Yaakobi told Channel 13 on Tuesday next to a road leading up the hill to the hospital.
Yaakobi eventually made the decision to enter the dense smoke with his staff, rather than wait for a bus to try and reach the hospital to ferry them out. His driver attempted to navigate the smoke and flames despite only being able to see half a meter (1.5 feet) ahead.
“The fire will reach the people in a minute. We must do everything fast,” he recalled telling other officers through a police communication network, with memories of the Carmel disaster dancing in his head. “I’m getting them out in cars. I’m not waiting for any bus.”
Yaakobi said many frightened hospital patients were frozen in fear, and that some actively objected to being whisked away in cars by people they did not know or trust.
“When they came, the entire evacuation took less than five minutes,” said Abramov, the Eitanim staff member. “And understand this, it was 150 people. Everyone gave it their all… this is the Israeli people, I have nothing left to say.”
Tamim said he and the other officers entered the compound with fire and smoke all around them, quickly going through the hospital and breaking open door after door to make sure nobody was being left behind.
The police district commander repeatedly ordered him and others to leave immediately, fearing the flames would burn down the entire hospital.
“I asked him for another moment or two before I get out, and when he said, ‘Dvir, you no longer have that moment,’ I understood I didn’t have that moment,” he said.
In the end, firefighting efforts and a vegetation-free firebreak surrounding the compound ended up saving the hospital from burning, and it remained largely unharmed.
By the time it was put out Tuesday, the enormous wildfire had consumed some 25,000 dunams (6,200 acres) of forest outside Jerusalem — surpassing the scale of the Carmel fire, which burned 24,000 dunams.
Over 2,000 people were forced to flee the flames. Some area residents lost their homes, others their life’s work.
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, including four Palestinian units.
The blaze was one of the biggest in the country’s history, surpassing what had thus far been the largest in the Jerusalem area, in 1995. It scorched vast green forest areas that include beloved hiking paths and national parks, including the Sataf site and Har Hatayasim.
Police are still looking into how the fire was started, after a Fire and Rescue Service probe concluded it was deliberate arson. The Shin Bet has begun to assist in the probe, Hebrew media reported Thursday, indicating suspicions that nationalist motives may have been at play.
According to Channel 13, five fires in the Jerusalem Hills over the past 3.5 months have been deemed arson — with almost all suspected to have a nationalistic motive.