Twelve American tourists on a B’nai B’rith trip to South America were killed Wednesday when their bus fell 300 feet down a mountainside. Two additional American passengers, as well as the Chilean tour guide and driver, were hospitalized with broken bones.
The group was part of a 64-person B’nai B’rith group on a 14-day Celebrity Cruise Lines jaunt around South America, and were returning to the ship after visiting Lauca National Park in Arica when their bus swerved to avert an oncoming truck and plunged off the highway.
Officials with B’nai B’rith International said the passengers lived in the Ponds, an age-restricted development in Monroe Township, N.J., and originally were from places throughout the Northeast. They ranged in age from 63 to 76, according to an unconfirmed list that appeared in the Chilean press.
The Associated Press confirmed the identities of two victims, Ira and Linda Greenfield of Stamford, Conn.
The cruise line did not release victims’ names, but said family members of the deceased had been notified and about a dozen were heading to Chile to identify the bodies.
Rabbi Leibel Miller of the Sacred Jewish Burial Society of Florida accompanied cruise line officials to Chile on Wednesday evening and was assisting the victims and their families, said Lynn Martenstein, vice president for corporate communications of Celebrity Cruise Lines.
The Millennium ship captain and cruise director met Wednesday with 50 other members of the B’nai B’rith group who had not gone on the fatal bus trip, then informed the rest of the ship’s passengers of the accident, Martenstein said. They met again with the group Thursday morning.
B’nai B’rith group members were given the option of returning to the United States, but all decided to continue to the next port in Lima, Peru. Martenstein said several may leave the ship in Lima.
The cruise is scheduled to return to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on April 2.
The cruise line has a chartered plane standing by in Arica to return the victims to the United States and to accommodate family members.
B’nai B’rith officials said the director of the group’s Santiago office was en route as well.
“We are shocked, stunned and saddened by this news,” said Joel Kaplan, president of B’nai B’rith International.
The Lauca excursion was booked separately by the B’nai B’rith members, and the tour was not affiliated with the cruise line, Martenstein said. The tour was not licensed, according to Chilean officials.
The two passengers who suffered broken bones were moved to an intensive care unit, Dan Hanrahan, president of Celebrity Cruises, said at a press conference Thursday. They are being treated at Arica’s Juan Noe Hospital, and are in stable condition.
“At this moment, all of us share the pain and anguish of this terrible event,” Hanrahan said. “We are devastated.”
An administrator at The Ponds said she believed all the victims were members of the non-sectarian retirement community, and said the South American trip had been organized independently from The Ponds but was geared towards its residents.
“They were very well known, very well liked and very active,” Eileen Marcus, community manager of The Ponds, said of the victims. “People are just in shock. It’s a very close-knit community and this is affecting all of them.”
Grief counselors from Jewish Family Services were at The Ponds on Thursday.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford told The Associated Press that relatives of the Greenfields were en route to Chile.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family during this difficult time,” he said. “Everyone is in a tremendous state of shock and sadness.”
JTA Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas and intern David Silverman contributed to this report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.