By: Howard English -- There’s a new bittersweet chapter in the tragic tale of December’s Carmel forest fire in northern Israel, which took 44 lives.
Hofit Hayat ,the wife of firefighter Danny Hayat, 35, who died after saving several lives, as he rushed to pull prison guards from a bus that was engulfed in flames, has given birth to a baby girl, Elah, the couple’s third child.
The memory of Danny Hayat weighed heavily on the minds of his fire fighting colleagues – his closest friends – and a UJA Federation of Greater Toronto delegation at the station closest to the inferno. There, Gil and Elisa Palter, chairs of the UJA Federation winter family mission, recently presented a cheque to the brigade for $25,000 from the federation’s Carmel Fire Fund, which has now raised nearly $300,000. The fund helped to finance sophisticated skin graft operations that attempted to keep Hayat alive.
“It’s very difficult to talk about Danny after everything that happened,” said his dear friend Amir Banias, deputy chief of the rescue team. “He was the best friend, the best commander. The fire fighters at this station cry at night for Danny. His family is now our family.” The fire brigade has since been renamed Danny’s Force.
Surrounded by blackened trees and charred earth, mission members, the first North American federation delegation to visit the scene since the fire subsided December 5, also heard another emotional account of unfathomable tragedy and remarkable heroism.
Roni Sofer, a daring Israeli photographer, who covers dangerous events for several publications and rescued three people from the raging blaze, spoke about an inferno that had a mind of its own and failed to follow normal patterns.
“The fire did not behave like it should,” he said. “It was unpredictable. It acted as if it were at war.” At one point, he recalled, the fire raced up a 300 metre cliff in just 22 seconds.
“It didn’t take longer than 15 or 20 minutes to realize that what happened here was bigger than anything that ever happened before,” he added.
Sofer drove north to photograph the fire scene but soon became caught up in completely unexpected drama featuring insufficient equipment and fire fighters who were unprotected for a disaster that displayed such unpredictability.
In addition, he continued, the pine trees filling the forest made matters worse. “Pine trees are highly flammable and the pine cones attack, just like hand grenades, providing oxygen to the fire as they fly.”
Sofer not only followed the fire, he was chased by it, trying to drive away from the flames while taking pictures, with a camera in each hand.
Eventually, three soaking fire victims jumped in front of him and took refuge in his car, saving their lives. They owe their survival to both Sofer and Danny Hayat who hosed them down, even as he was burnt, sacrificing his life for theirs.