Torontonians Meet Hero of Carmel Forest Fire Aboard UJA Federation Mission

It was a riveting story about what one firefighter called hell itself.

Surrounded by blackened trees and charred earth, participants of the recent UJA Federation of Greater Toronto Family Mission heard an emotional account of unfathomable tragedy and remarkable heroism at the site of Israel’s infamous Carmel forest fire that started December 2 and ended up taking 44 lives. Mission members represented the first North American federation delegation to visit the scene since the fire subsided December 5.

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 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.

“The place was packed with fire fighters and police and no one knew what was happening 800 metres from here,” he said.

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 Hyat from the fire station closest to the blaze, who hosed them down, even as he was burnt, sacrificing his life for their lives.

The memory of Hyat, 35, weighed heavily on the minds of fellow fire fighters – his closest friends - at the station where mission chairs Gil and Elisa Palter presented a cheque for $25,000 from the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto Carmel Fire Fund, which has now raised nearly $300,000.

“It’s very difficult to talk about Danny after everything that happened,” said his dear friend Amir Banias, deputy chief of the rescue team, who noted that, at the time of the mission visit, Hyat’s wife, Hofit, was sitting shiva, pregnant in her ninth month with their third child. “He was the best possible friend, the best commander. Dani’s family is now our family,” said Banias.

Source: Shalom Life


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