Rafi Babayan/Courtesy MDA/BP Images
Israeli rescue workers search the wreckage for victims after a passenger train smashed at high speed into a truck on June 21, near Kibbutz Revadim in southern Israel.

TEL AVIV (JTA) - A veteran of responding to Palestinian terror attacks, Brig. Gen. Amir Eshel did not hesitate to scramble all of Israel's military helicopters when news that a train had derailed first reached his bunker.

It turned out that last Tuesday's crash near Kibbutz Revadim in southern Israel was an accident, not a terrorist attack.

But for many of the 180-odd casualties, the air force duty officer's quick response might have meant the difference between life and death.

"We assumed it was a major terrorist incident," Eshel told Channel Two television. "Even though it wasn't, the ability to reach the remote site by air was very important in getting people to treatment."

At least seven passengers of the southbound train, and the driver of the truck it hit, were killed.

The force of the collision squashed the first two cars of the train like an accordion. Debris was scattered for hundreds of feet around the scraggly bushes in the desert.

"I heard the train's horn sound, and then we were all thrown forward as it slammed on the brakes," an off-duty soldier rescued from the scene told reporters in the hospital. "Next thing I know, there was a huge explosion, dust, and everything spun around. It was all I could do to get out of there."

The worst of the injured were taken by helicopters to hospitals. The walking wounded lay on the sand next to the tracks, awaiting ambulances that took at least half an hour to reach the remote location.

Given that the train was carrying as many as 1,000 passengers, many of whom had moved up front during the voyage after the air conditioning failed in the rear cars, the death toll could have been far worse.

"In such situations perhaps one should not say 'Thank God,' but I think given the damage we can be grateful the casualties were relatively limited," said Avi Zohar, director of the MDA ambulance service.

Authorities were quick to rule out terrorism as the cause of the collision. Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit noted that the truck driver who was killed - apparently the truck stalled astride the tracks en route to work on a nearby highway - was Jewish.

The train conductor was hospitalized and not immediately available to give testimony. An investigation was launched into the accident, but with witnesses lacking, speculation was rife that negligence could have played a part in one of Israel's worst-ever transportation tragedies.

There was talk of an excess cargo of coal aboard the train, and the fact that the site saw two similar, albeit milder, accidents in 2000 and 2003.

"I warned them that the writing was on the wall, that the system had to be fixed, but no one paid attention," Moshe Hazut, a former train safety supervisor, told Channel One television.

Tuesday's collision came only days after Israel marked a decade since its worst train accident, in Kibbutz Habonim, when a school bus straddled the tracks and was smashed. Twenty-two people were killed in that incident, including 19 children.

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