MEGIDDO, Israel – Bus driver Micky Harel's fourth brush with death came in a massive fireball from an explosives-packed car that raced up beside bus No. 830 on his Wednesday morning route.
The blast rolled the bus twice like a kicked soda can, engulfed it in flames and hurled passengers onto the highway. The attack, carried out by an Islamic militant, killed at least 16 Israelis and wounded 38.
Harel, who said he survived three other bombing and shooting attacks along the same route in northern Israel, escaped with a few cuts and bruises.
The driver managed to drag some passengers to safety. Then the flames grew. "I was in despair because I couldn't get any more of them out," he said.
The bus route passes Arab towns, and it's likely some of the passengers were Arab citizens. Officials said it was difficult to count and identify the dead because bodies were so badly shredded and burned and the bus was incinerated down to its frames.
"It's a tough sight," said a regional police chief, Yaakov Borovsky.
The militant Islamic Jihad group said it carried out the bombing to mark the 35th anniversary of the 1967 Mideast War.
The bus set out from Tel Aviv at 5:50 a.m. and was headed for Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.
The trip ended in a scene of destruction in Megiddo, Hebrew for "Armageddon" — the place where the New Testament book of Revelation depicts a final battle between good and evil at the End of Days.
On Wednesday, like he does each day, Harel picked up many soldiers from bus stops in the coastal cities of Netanya, Hadera and Karkur and the Camp 80 army base. He's gotten to know many of them.
Some of them slipped on headphones and dozed off.
Soldier Sharon Levinger got on, and a friend grabbed two seats for them in the first row and asked Levinger to wake him up when they arrived at their base.
On highway 66, as they neared the Megiddo Prison, Levinger caught a quick glimpse of a car alongside the bus. A moment later the blast ripped through the cabin, he recalled from a hospital bed.
The bus rolled twice and careened into the patch of roadside weeds and grass in front of the prison. Harel gripped the steering wheel even as the large windshield shattered into a spray of glass.
For him, it was a familiar sense of panic. He had survived three other attacks in the past 20 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
In October, while Harel was on a break from driving bus No. 842, a Palestinian gunmen dressed as an Israeli soldier pumped bullets into the bus in the northern town of Afula, killing three bystanders.
A month later, Harel said he drove just yards behind a bus blown apart by a suicide bomber near the Arab town of Umm el-Fahm. That attack killed three passengers.
Last month, at a highway intersection, as traffic lights turned green, a suicide bomber blew up on the side of the road as Harel was driving past. Only the bomber was killed.
Aware of the dangers, Harel sometimes asks passengers to open their jackets. He checks bags going into the cargo compartment of the bus.
In Wednesday's attack, his scorched bus was tossed onto a highway embankment just outside the barbed wire fence of the prison. Inmates, many of them Palestinian security prisoners, cheered when they heard the explosion, police said. Guards in nearby watchtowers saw the bus tumble and crash.
"It lit up instantly," a guard named Andre told Army Radio. "People were fleeing from it like ants." He saw a female soldier sitting on the road, her face covered in blood, apparently unable to see to move. Another soldier picked her up.
In the bus' front seat, Levinger was able to kick the door open and escape.
An advertisement was blown off the back of the bus. It read: "To bus drivers, security forces and rescue teams — the heart says thank you."
The car driven by the bomber disintegrated, leaving behind just a bit of the smoldering engine. Witnesses said some passengers were trapped alive in the burning bus, among them a man and a woman who burned to death in each other's arms.