Ten youths, nine girls and a boy from a pre-military academy, were killed after they were carried off by a surge in the Tzafit stream west of the southern part of the Dead Sea amid intense storms that hit the South of Israel on Thursday.
The body of a missing female student was located late Thursday night, bringing the death toll to 10, after search and rescue operations in the Judean Desert continued through the night. Efforts were earlier halted around 8 p.m. due to danger posed to the team by the harsh weather conditions.
Two other students of the school, the Bnei Zion Academy in Tel Aviv, were moderately wounded and were taken to the Soroka-University Medical Center in Beersheba. Thirteen of the students were found by search and rescue teams and were uninjured.
Yalek River flooding / Video by Mark Katz, courtesy of the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority
According to a statement released by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, a medical team from the co-ed Bardelas Battalion stationed in that area came to the scene.
Three teams of the IDF’s elite 669 Search and Rescue Unit, aided by their three Yasur and two Yanshuf helicopters, searched for the missing. In addition, teams from the IDF’s Oketz canine unit and Yahalom joint special-combat engineering unit took part in the search.
Helicopters looking for survivors from the flood / Courtesy of Magen David Adom
The statement added that the commander of the 80th “Edom” Division was also deployed to the scene.
Police Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld confirmed that an inquiry into the tragedy had been opened. Media reports suggested that the head of Bnei Zion had been taken in for questioning. Police opened an investigation and took staff members, including the principal, in for questioning and later arrested two staff members
, police announced on Friday. The third remains under house arrest.
Magen David Adom EMT Eitan Shlomo, who evacuated the two injured teenagers to Soroka Medical Center, said: “On the way to the scene we drove past large puddles and flooding on the road. With the help of 4X4 vehicles we were able to arrive. We joined the MDA crews at the scene next to the entrance to the river and we treated and evacuated two 17 year olds suffering from injuries to their faces, limbs and heads. They were rescued by air force helicopters. They were evacuated to Soroka hospital in light to moderate condition.”
“We were unable to escape the current and were swept away by the river,” a rescued youth said on Channel 10 News.
Police officers and IDF helicopters aided in the search. The diving unit of the Fire Brigade was on location and rescue teams used boats to search the water for the missing teenagers.
Magen David Adom CEO Eli Bin said in an interview with Israeli radio station 103 FM that the rescue teams were “racing against the clock to save lives.”
Police instructed people to stay away from the area.
After 8 p.m., the Negev police spokesman said that they had temporarily stopped the search efforts due to the danger posed to the team by the harsh weather conditions, and that they would resume the search as soon as it was possible.
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN, in a statement on the tragedy, said: “Our prayers and thoughts are with our brothers, our children, and our loved ones who are in trouble. We are closely following the updates from the South and send a warm embrace to the worried families. We will strengthen all the security and rescue forces, who are in the process of search and rescue and medical treatment. I ask you all, please follow the instructions of the police and rescue forces and be attentive to them.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was closely following the rescue mission and was updated over the phone by IDF Operations Directorate head Maj.-Gen. Yoav Har-Even.
“I support the security and rescue forces that are currently working to save lives and to locate those missing in the severe disaster that occurred today in the Tzafit River,” said Netanyahu. “We are all praying for better news.”
“The State of Israel grieves for the promising young lives that were cut off by the grave disaster in the Arava. We embrace, with pain, the grieving families, and pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded,” he said later, after news of the casualties had been reported.
The Education Ministry said it had not been informed of the trip. “The trip was not reported to us, was not known by our situation room and was not approved by us,” it said in a statement.
The ministry added that it was following developments with concern, was in constant contact with the relevant parties, and would soon provide the necessary responses to educational institutions on the matter.
The Defense Ministry responded to that statement by saying that according to rules and regulations, the Education Ministry is the professional body responsible for approving the educational activities in pre-military preparatory programs.
“The Defense Ministry is not responsible for the curriculum, including trips,” the ministry said, adding that it “continues to monitor the severe disaster in the Arava with great concern. It is very unfortunate that on such a day, not only does the responsible body not take responsibility, but rather imposes it on another entity.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that a heavy tragedy has struck.
“Our hearts are with the families of the teenagers who found their deaths in flash floods in the South,” he said. “The Ministry of Education will continue, over the coming hours and days, to work closely with the educational staff in the schools the students attended.
MEANWHILE, serious flooding was reported in several other parts of the country as the mega-storm ripped through.
MDA reported that a 40-year-old woman in the southern Galilee, near the Kinneret Junction, had been injured after a tree fell during the storm and crushed her car.
A bus carrying some 50 people was also knocked over near the Dead Sea due to the heavy rains, but all occupants were evacuated safely.
Parts of the security barrier near Shuafat collapsed due to the heavy downfall. Residents and rioters from Shuafat attempted to infiltrate through the broken security barrier and threw stones at security forces. However, the Border Police fired tear gas and managed to push the crowd back. Border Police and security forces remained on the scene to prevent any further infiltration attempts.
Videos of rainwater streaming through other parts of Jerusalem, including the Old City, were also posted on social media. Debris, such as chairs, shopping carts and other items could be seen floating down streets near Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall and Zion Square as raging waters flooded the area.
Videos also emerged of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron flooding with water, as people tried to move chairs, books and other items out of harm’s way and prevent further damage from taking place due to the heavy rain.
Palestinian news outlets also reported that streets in Bethlehem had been closed due to the downpour, while the entrance to the Isawiya neighborhood, located on Mount Scopus near Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, had been closed due to flooding.
Police and rescue services had to save 15 people who were trapped by flooding in their vehicles in a valley near Bethlehem.
Parts of the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan were also badly flooded, with cars in some streets submerged under water.Anna Ahronheim, Ilanit Chernick, Ariane Mandell and Hagay Hacohen contributed to this report.