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Young SA women’s close escape from bus inferno

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On an ordinary Tuesday morning last week, Amanda Porter’s daughter Natanya phoned her twice in succession from Israel. Her blood ran cold. “We have a rule that if it’s an emergency, she must call again if I don’t answer the first time. I didn’t understand what she meant by ‘our bus caught fire’, but when she switched the call to video, we both watched as her bus burst into flames. It was surreal.”
by TALI FEINBERG | Nov 21, 2019

Natanya, 19, was one of three South African young Jewish adults travelling on a bus to Masada when a tyre fell off their bus, starting a fire. All 48 passengers were evacuated just before the bus burst into flames, in what is being described as a real-life miracle. No one was injured.

A tour guide with the group, Eytan Rund, sent a voice note to other guides in the area, describing the situation. “Sorry I have to do this in voicemail but things are getting crazy over here ... I was doing a tiyul [excursion] with the girls’ seminary, the back left wheel went off the bus, oh my G-d, and all of a sudden we started smelling smoke, it was very clear we had to get the kids off the bus, we got them off the bus ... and then sure enough, we started seeing flames.”

With the sound of wind, sirens, and crackling flames in the background, he went on to say, “Got the bags and the girls out of the bus ... we didn’t get [the bags] far enough unfortunately ... started blowing all over the place ... didn’t exactly blow up, just burned like crazy. Fire-fighters are here. It’s insane. There was nothing to break the glass to get the fire extinguisher out, so a tour guide had to use the butt of his gun. By the time he got it open, there were way too many flames. It’s crazy.”

Porter is one of about 15 South African women studying at Midreshet Harova Seminary in their post-matric year. They were divided among two buses for the outing. The excursion was originally meant to go further south, but because of rocket attacks that morning, they decided to go to Masada.

“After stopping for 20 minutes at Ein Gedi, we carried on the drive to Masada. Less than 15 minutes into the drive, we heard a loud explosive noise and the bus skidded forward, while the bus driver slammed on breaks and swerved out the road as much as possible,” she said.

“A few of the girls say they saw a tyre fly off the bus. Almost immediately, those of us sitting at the back of the bus smelled burning rubber. Everything then happened so fast. The bus driver checked the side without the tyre, saw the flames, and opened the doors while our madrichot [leaders] told us to get off the bus,” says Porter.

“Within two minutes, the back of the bus was on fire and soon after that, there was a loud bang and the entire bus was engulfed in flames. We didn’t manage to get our backpacks off the bus because we all believed that it was just a faulty tyre and we’d all be back on the bus soon.

“At first we were laughing and joking, but when we saw our bus engulfed in flames – the bus that two minutes prior we were all sitting on – if we hadn’t evacuated when we did, G-d forbid, the outcome would have been unimaginable. And so the laughter stopped. The tiyul was supposed to be overnight, so our bags under the bus were filled with purses, clothes and toiletries, glasses, contact lenses, and ID cards. Our tour guide tried to take the bags out of the bus, but the fire grew so quickly, he had to stop and join us further back in the middle of the desert.” All of their possessions were burnt beyond recovery.

Porter said their escape was a real-life miracle. “Every single person got of that bus completely unharmed, and the only things we lost were just that, things! Our tour guide later told us that when the tyre flew off, the bus scraped against the ground, and the friction caused the fire. The entire bus was burnt to smithereens.

“We are haunted by the reality of what could have been. Many of us are having sleepless nights even five days later. I would be remiss in not expressing complete gratitude to Hashem, to the bus driver, and to Midreshet Harova, which has been supportive in every way.”

The young women had to wait an hour and a half in the desert for a new bus to escort them to Ein Gedi for the night. On their return to Jerusalem, the girls benched gomel, a prayer said after recovering from a serious illness or surviving a dangerous journey.

Porter and another South African girl lost their glasses and contact lenses, and the seminary took them to get new ones the next day. They were given cash to replace lost items, and they have been visited and comforted by their mashgichot (seminary moms), with free counselling and debriefing sessions offered. But it’s only now that the practical losses have been resolved that the trauma is hitting the girls hard.

“Imagine standing in the desert watching the bus you were sitting on two minutes before burn to a skeleton. It’s hard to explain how terrifying that was. A lot of the girls have had nightmares,” she said.

“As a parent, the hardest part is being far away,” said her mother. “It’s so out of my control, and difficult to be there for my daughter. I feel like I need a de-brief!”

She points out that it has been a traumatic year for these girls, with the tragic passing of peers Adam Seef and Adam Rabinovitch. Some of that trauma has “snowballed” with this event.

The parents and their daughters are consumed by thoughts of what could have been if it weren’t for the quick thinking of the bus driver who evacuated the girls so quickly. At this stage, the name of the bus driver is not known to the SA Jewish Report.

Porter said that when people driving past saw the bus on fire, they abandoned their vehicles as they thought it had been hit by a rocket.

A mother of another young South African woman who was on the bus, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the “aftershock” had been tough. “I think it’s taken them a couple of days to realise what happened and how lucky they were.”

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