Two runners training in the fields near Kibbutz Givat Brenner were injured Friday by a hit-and-run driver in an all-terrain vehicle. According to allegations, the driver hit the runners with his vehicle after they had requested that he stop driving recklessly around them.
One of the victims, Tigist Bitao, 15, from Nes Ziona, is the Israeli champion in her age group for women in open field running, and is projected to join the Israeli delegation at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Her friend, Radet Baletta, 19, from Rishon Lezion, an elite runner and member of Israel's national team, was also injured.
Just before 7 p.m. Friday evening, the Nes Ziona running team was training in the fields, when, according to members of the team, an ATV driver sped past them wildly, raising a cloud of dirt and dust around them. The runners reportedly signaled the driver with their hands to slow down, at which point he allegedly did a U-turn, sped up and drove directly at the group, injuring Bitao and Baletta. After hitting the runners, the driver sped away from the scene.
As of Sunday afternoon, police from the Shfela District were still searching for the suspect, and have called on him to turn himself in.
The team's coaches and other runners, among them Dr. Rafi Wishnitzer, who works at Kaplan Hospital, immediately called the police and paramedics to the scene. Wishnitzer also provided the injured runners with first aid. The paramedics took them to Kaplan Hospital, where Bitao was taken into surgery with shattered bones in the lower part of her body. Her health improved over the weekend and she is now listed in moderate condition.
A hospital spokesperson said doctors were hopeful that her injuries would not prevent her from returning to competition.
Baletta was treated for her injuries and released from the hospital on Saturday.
"He simply hit us from behind and we didn't see him coming," Baletta said yesterday. "Because of the dust and because he was wearing a helmet we couldn't see his face. He almost destroyed our lives and it could have ended much worse."
The team's coach, Wodage Zvadya, told the police that the suspect drove toward them while they were running in the field, passed them, turned around to backtrack, drove amid the runners who managed to "jump out of the way and not get hurt," but hit the two girls running some 30 meters (almost 100 feet) ahead of the group from behind. According to Zvadya, it was a miracle that two other girls running alongside Bitao and Balata escaped injury.
Bitao's brother said the family was hoping police would quickly find the driver. "Only someone who doesn't care about human life can do such a thing," he said.
Family and friends from the running club said Bitao was preparing for an upcoming international competition in Latvia.
"Everyone, including the coaches, predicts great things for her, and she was supposed to join the team that is preparing for the Olympics in 2016. We hope this injury doesn't finish her dream and she will be able to run again," said a friend.