Israel — A 14-YEAR-OLD boy has admitted that he accidentally started the worst fire in Israeli history, which killed 42 people, when he sneaked out of school for a smoke.
The boy from Usfiya, a Druze village outside Haifa, told police that he had smoked a hookah and tossed the hot coals into grass that had been turned into a tinderbox by an eight-month drought.
The resulting blaze destroyed 10,000 acres of forest and brushland, damaged 250 homes, and is estimated to have caused $79 million worth of damage.
The boy’s confession came as the country’s most senior female police commander, who helped to evacuate hundreds of prisoners from a jail caught in the path of the inferno, died yesterday.
Brigadier-General Ahuva Tomer, 53, who commanded the Haifa police division, suffered severe burns. She came to symbolise the human tragedy of the fire after a TV reporter interviewed her minutes before she set out on what became her last mission.
She spoke of the pain of seeing the forest burn: “It’s heartbreaking. It looks like it will last a long time.”
Most of the victims were trainee prison warders sent from their base to try to rescue 500 prisoners in danger of being burnt in their cells. Their bus ran into a wall of flame on a hill and was unable to turn around.
The fire broke out on Thursday and raged out of control for almost three days. It soon became apparent that the Jewish state, a military and economic powerhouse in the region, had no firefighting planes and was woefully understaffed in its fire departments.
It was forced to accept help from Britain, the US and even the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank. The catastrophe has prompted calls for an immediate inquiry and tough criticism of those in charge, especially of Eli Yishai, the Interior Minister and head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that Mr Yishai had cut off funding from a Christian charity that had offered to provide fire engines before the blaze because Shas refused to accept donations from evangelical Christians.
Mr Yishai has responded by complaining of a “lynching” directed at him because of his political and religious beliefs.