Israel`s top policewoman dies from fire burns

Tomer was driving behind prison guards` bus when flames engulfed both vans.

Last Updated: Dec 06, 2010, 18:58 PM IST

Jerusalem: Israel`s top policewoman, who had clung to life for four days after her patrol car was trapped in a burning Israel forest, died Monday of her wounds as the last of the flames subsided in the worst fire in Israel`s history.

Deputy Commander Ahuva Tomer had quickly become a symbol of courage, action and devotion to duty in a country that has grown grimly accustomed to seeing top officials tainted by corruption, misconduct and incompetence.

With Israel`s home front and leadership woefully unprepared to battle the wildfire, Tomer came to embody the values of an older era when Israeli leaders and commanders, many of them immigrants like herself, were seen as selfless heroes.

Tomer, head of the police department in Haifa, Israel`s third-largest city, had been driving behind a bus of prison guards rushing to evacuate a prison Thursday when both vehicles were engulfed in flames.

Her death raised to 42 the number of people who died in the wildfire that consumed a 20-square-mile (50-square-kilometer) area in the Carmel forest, a popular nature spot on Haifa`s outskirts. The fire was brought under control late Sunday, and further weakened Monday after overnight rains.

The 53-year-old policewoman came to personify the human tragedy of the fire after a TV reporter interviewed her just minutes before she set out on what became her last mission. She spoke of the pain of seeing the forest burn and nodding ruefully, added, "It`s heartbreaking. It looks like it will last a long time."

Minutes afterward, Israeli media reported, a desperate Tomer radioed police to say she was on fire.

Israel`s public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovich, eulogized her as a "woman of valor." A former top-ranking police commander, Yaakov Borovsky, told Army Radio that "she was a leader through and through," whose "aptitudes made her stand out."

The blaze that killed the Soviet-born Tomer has generated much soul-searching in Israel about the state of the country`s leadership, because officials had long warned that the neglected state of Israel`s firefighting operations was a recipe for disaster.

Hours after the blaze broke out Thursday, firefighters ran out of firefighting chemicals. They also did not have a single firefighting plane in their possession.

Israel was forced to scramble to respond, appealing to other countries to send planes and material to put out the raging blaze, which on Monday had been reduced to one isolated point, according to police.

Israel`s vulnerability prompted critics to ask whether the nation`s leaders could cope with far more serious challenges, like rocket attacks from Iranian-backed militants or a nuclear-armed Iran.

Much of the backlash is aimed at Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a politician from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party whose office oversees fire services.

Yishai made a handy target because he forcefully — and successfully — lobbies to get money for pet projects that benefit his religious and blue collar constituents.

Yishai, a Jew of north African descent, has responded by accusing media critics of racism. His spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, says the fire broke out as divine punishment for desecration of the Jewish Sabbath.

Officials are nervously awaiting the release in the next few days of a state comptroller`s report on the condition of the firefighting services. The same comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, issued a critical report of Israel`s firefighting capabilities after the 2006 Lebanon war.

But while the fire has exposed deficiencies in Israel`s top ranks, it has also generated much pride in the bravery and leadership of those like Tomer and a 16-year-old volunteer firefighter who died trying to rescue those aboard the bus.

Two teenage brothers are being held on suspicion that they inadvertently set the fire. Two other minors were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the fire and were being questioned Monday, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Most of the 17,000 people evacuated during the fire have returned to their homes. About 250 homes were damaged or destroyed, and damages overall have been estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although the blaze was small by international standards, it was considered a calamity in Israel, where only 7 percent of the land is wooded.

IANS