JERUSALEM – A bus filled with Russian tour guides crashed through a roadside barrier and tumbled down a steep ravine in southern Israel, killing at least 24, the rescue service said, in one of the worst traffic accidents in Israel's history.
The tour guides had just arrived in Israel to check out spots for future Russian tourists and were heading for the popular Red Sea resort of Eilat when their trip came to a tragic end.
The driver of another tour bus said the vehicle sped by in a no-passing zone, crashed through a guard rail and rolled down the slope, said Rami Vazana, the driver of the bus that was overtaken.
Television footage showed the blue bus overturned at the bottom of a desert ravine, debris strewn along the slope it rolled down from the road. Bodies in white bags were laid out in a row at the bottom of the ravine, which was swarming with rescue workers and soldiers.
The passengers' luggage was tossed into a pile nearby.
Click here for photos.
"Dozens of wounded and dead were strewn along the slope. Most of them were thrown from the bus as it rolled," medic Gabi Baribo said.
Israel's rescue service said in a statement that 24 people were declared dead at the scene. A spokeswoman for Eilat's hospital said two more died of their injuries. Hospital officials said several others were in critical condition.
Russia's ambassador in Israel, Pyotr Stegnii, told Vesti-TV that 30 people were killed.
A spokeswoman for Israel's tourism ministry said the 60 passengers on the bus were Russians, and Eilat official Avi Cohen said they were from the city of St. Petersburg and had just landed.
Irina Tyurina, a spokeswoman for the Russian Union of Tour Operators, told the Russian station Vesti-TV that they were representatives from five Russian tour agencies on a professional scouting trip to Israel.
Forty ambulances rushed to the scene and Israel's air force dispatched six helicopters to evacuate the seriously wounded to hospitals across the country.
An Israeli military officer who was among the first to arrive said he and several others rescued six wounded people who were trapped in the bus.
"They were saved because they were trapped in their seats. The rest were scrambled and mangled, spread out along the slope," said the officer, who identified himself only as Sawad because military regulations do not allow him to speak to the media without authorization.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "expressed shock at the horrific accident and the high number of people who were killed and wounded." and sent his condolences, according to a statement from his office. Olmert is in London on an official visit.
The statement also said, "Israel copes with traffic accidents on a daily basis and unfortunately not a week goes by without Israeli civilian motorists and pedestrians killed and injured." Before the bus accident, 406 people were killed on Israel's roads this year, according to the "Or Yarok" group that pushes for traffic safety.
The bus plunge caused the highest death toll for a single accident in Israel's history. In June 1985, a train plowed into a bus that was stalled on the tracks, killing 18 children and three adults. In 1999, 16 people were killed in an accident similar to Tuesday's, but in Israel's north.
In contrast, more than 200 people have been killed in Palestinian suicide bombings on Israeli buses since 2000. The deadliest attack was in Jerusalem in August 2003, when 23 people were killed. The last bus bombing was in 2004.