Early on the morning of the tragedy, the Atias family left their home in the Bar Yochai moshav near Meron and drove to Migdal Ha’emek to help prepare for the dedication of Rav Shimon Atias’s new shul. There was also to be a hachnossas sefer Torah for two sifrei Torah Rav Shimon wrote for the shul, one of them free of charge as a personal donation.
That evening, the quiet shul sprang to life, as hundreds of locals and guests danced through the streets with the sifrei Torah and celebrated a joyous seudas mitzvah. Rav Yitzchok Dovid Grossman, head of the Migdal Ohr institutions, noticed that Atias remained close to his small daughter, Rachel, as he danced with the sifrei Torah.
“She wants to be close to the sifrei Torah,” Atias said to Rav Grossman, a little apologetically.
“Certainly, she is right, the Torah shields and saves,” Rav Grossman replied, not knowing what he was predicting.
“Ki hem chayenu ve’orech yomenu,”he blessed the little girl. “In the merit of the Torah, may she always have a long, good life.”
After lingering to help clean up after the seudah, Rafael Atias, always on the lookout to grab yet another mitzvah, delayed a few moments longer to drive his parents home, and he finally drove off with his family at close to one-o-clock in the morning. His plan was to stop by the kever of the Sheloh Hakodesh in Teveriah on the way home. They never got there.
Driving down the steep descent from Tzefas to Teveriah, Atias discovered his brakes were malfunctioning and phoned an emergency police hotline for help.
“Our brakes aren’t working!” he said. “We have passed the Golani Junction and are now going down in the direction of Teveriah.”
“I’m sending a police van,” she promised.
After four minutes of conversation, the telephonist heard Atias’ wife, Yehudit, scream, “Hashem save us! Hashem help us!” This was followed by more screams, the commotion of the overturning car, and silence.
Rachel, the surviving daughter, later told her uncle what happened after the brakes failed.
“The car started to move quickly, and our mother told us to read from the book Tehillim,” she said. “We knew something was wrong and prayed. Mother kissed me, and there were screams in the car. Father called the police before we crashed, he cried and cried.”
Examining the car’s tread marks afterwards, police found that Atias lost control when the car hit a sharp curve. After hitting a roadside barrier a number of times, the car flipped over a dividing barrier into the opposite lane, streaked down a hill at 80-90 miles-an-hour, landed on its roof, and burst into flames.
Investigations indicated that the brakes failed due to wearing out of their pads, which are normally about an inch thick; these were less than one millimeter. A mandatory Motor Vehicle Bureau inspection three months ago had checked brake function, but not the physical condition of the pads.
First to arrive at the scene of the accident was Gilad Chanoch, director of an Ichud Hatzalah branch. He was sitting on the balcony of his nearby home when he suddenly saw a fire break out, accompanied by thick smoke. After alerting members of his organization, he rushed to the scene of the tragedy and found Rachel, who had flown from the car when it hit the ground and was saved from the flames.
“There are six other people inside,” she told him, forgetting to count her parents.
Meanwhile, another Ichud Hatzalah member began checking the pulses of the family, their seforim still open on their knees. All had perished from the flames.
Rachel was taken to the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, suffering from slight injuries and abrasions.
Atias’s father, Rav Shimon Atias, heard the tragic news early the following morning when his son phoned him and asked to come down and open his front door. Seeing his son there together with police, he thought the new sifrei Torah had been stolen or burned. On being informed of the tragedy, he said with perfect emunah, “Baruch… dayan ha’emet. The Rock’s work is perfect; He is a G-d of faith and no wrongdoing, for He is righteous and upright.”
Later, he compared his tragedy to that of Aharon.
“He rejoiced at the joy of the chanukas hamizbe’ach and sacrificed his two sons,” he said. “I dedicated my mikdosh me’at and sacrificed my son, my daughter-in-law, and my six grandchildren.”
“Early in the morning I was phoned by family members living in Migdal Ha’emek who told me of the painful tragedy,” Rav Yitzchok Dovid Grossman recalled. “Only the daughter survived, the daughter who stood next to the sifrei Torah.
“I rose up and gathered the children of the institutions to read Tehillim and recite Mishnayos in memory of the dear family that was cut off through heavenly decree. I told the talmidim that at the chanukas haMishkon, Hashem chose to kill Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, the Kohen Gadol. Aharon received the heavenly decree in silence, vayidom Aharon, but the Jewish people wept and mourned as it says, And all the house of Yisroel cried over the fire Hashem had burned.
“Yesterday there was a chanukas Mishkon here, a mikdosh me’at. Hashem chose sacrifices fitting and pure to rise to the heavens. The members of the family certainly accept heaven’s decree with love and silence. But the people of Yisroel have an obligation to cry over the fire Hashem has burned and to ponder why He has done this.”
At the Vassikin minyan in the Ohel Harashbi shul, residents of Bar Yochai, a dati-leumi villagefounded by bnei Torah in 1977, were surprised when Atias, a regular member of the minyan, gabbai and chazzan of the shul, and one of the founders of its Daf Hayomi shiur, failed to show up. Phoning his cell phone to inquire why he was late, they got no reply. Some residents of the village fainted when news of the greatest tragedy of the village’s history spread through its streets. Almost everyone was a close friend of at least one member of the large Atias family, which was also renowned for its unlimited chesed and ran a gemach of chairs, benches, hotplates, and all a family might need for a simchah.
After Ma’ariv on Tuesday evening,the residents of Bar Yochai set off in cars and busses to Tzefas where the levayah of the Atias family was attended by thousands. People burst into tears as eight ambulances drew up with the niftars’ bodies. People spoke of the family’s chesed, and their love for Torah and tefillah.
After a number of hespedim delivered by Rav Shimon Atias, Yishai Atias (the niftar’s brother) and Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, the rov of Tzefas, and others, the eight family members were interred in the old Tzefas cemetery.
Prime Minister Netanyahu offered his condolences to Rachel and the mourning nation of Israel on his Facebook page, “A terrible tragedy happened in the north. An entire family perished. The whole country is now concentrating on little Rachel. Rachel – all the people are with you. All the people are hugging you.”
On Thursday morning, Rachel Atias was picked up from hospital by her aunt, Esther Cohen, who will provide her with her new home.
“I thank the hospital staff, and above all the Borei Olam,” Cohen said. “May He give us strength and help us raise her to Torah, chupah, mitzvos, and good deeds.”
Rachel’s cousins, who had stayed with her in the hospital, brought out the many gifts she received in hospital, including teddy bears, dolls, and balloons. Following the advice of social workers, she was first taken to her new home in Tzefas before traveling to her beautiful, but forlorn home at the edge of Bar Yochai, where her extended family was sitting shivah. Over Shabbos and Shavuos Rachel got out of her wheelchair, stood up on her own, and began walking without assistance.
“Rachel feels much better, and everyone plays with her,” her uncle reported on Motzo’ei Shavuos. “She is recuperating but knows it is difficult, and she sometimes cries with longing for her family.”
Yehi zichrom boruch.