Three Israelis Die in Nepal Blizzard, One Missing

Twenty seven casualties have been confirmed so far in the northern mountains and about 70 are missing, after a blizzard strikes a popular trekking route.

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Israeli trekkers Linor Kajan (L), Yakov Megreli (C) and Maya Ora (R), talk to the media after being rescued following the Nepal avalanche. October 16, 2014.Credit: AFP

Israel's Foreign Ministry has confirmed that three Israelis have died since a blizzard dumped snow and triggered avalanches on Tuesday along a mountain trekking route popular with backpackers in northern Nepal. A fourth Israeli is missing.

The families of the three Israeli casualties have been notified. One of the men killed in the avalanche is Agam Luria, 23, from the Yifat in northern Israel. Upon his release from the Israeli army, where he served in the Haifa recruitment center, he flew abroad for a post-army trip.

Another of the casualties is Lieutenant Tamar Ariel, 25, from the southern Israeli community of Masu’ot Yitzhak. Ariel was the first religious woman to complete the Israel Air Force's pilots training course and the first female religious navigator in the army.

Lt. Col. Matan, commander of Lt. Tamar's wing told the Air Force website: "Tamar was an exceptional fighter. She had a unique blend of values, together with rare talent and spirit." 

The third is Nadav Shoham, 30, of the northern national-religious community of Hoshaya. According to his family, he left for the trip two weeks ago, and was supposed to return home next week. He is the third of four sons.

The Foreign Ministry expressed concern on Thursday that the fourth Israeli may be dead, as he was in the area at the time of the avalanche and has not yet made contact with his family or been located.

Search teams in army helicopters rescued dozens of stranded foreign trekkers and recovered more bodies of victims on Thursday, raising the death toll to 27, officials said.

About 70 people were still missing along or near the popular Annapurna trail, said Ganga Sagar Pant of the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal, and the death toll there was expected to rise.

The route, 160 kilometers (100 miles) northwest of the capital, Katmandu, was filled with international hikers during the peak October trekking season, when the air is generally clear and cool. There were also many Nepalese on the trails because of local festivals.

Fourteen Israelis have been rescued so far and treated at the Military Hospital in Katmandu. Seven of them were released Thursday morning, according to Foreign Ministry officials, five remained in hospital with frostbite and another two were hospitalized on Thursday.

"I was sure I was going to die on the way to the pass because I lost my group, I lost all the people I was with and I could not see anything," said Linor Kajan, an injured trekker from Israel, who said she had been stuck waist-deep in snow.

"One Nepalese guide who knows the way saw me and asked me to stay with him. And he dragged me, really dragged me to the tea shop. And everybody there was really frightened," she said.

Another Israeli survivor, Yakov Megreli, said he and other travelers tried to stay awake at a tea shop along the trail to stay warm.

"We tried not to sleep. We tried not to get hypothermia. It was a very frightening and awful situation," he said.

Israel's embassy in Kathmandu is trying to make contact with 130 Israelis who are in Nepal and have still not made contact with their families. The majority of them were not in the area of the avalanche and blizzard.

Foreign Ministry officials said that diplomats from the Israeli embassy in India have been sent to Nepal to aid the smaller Kathmandu embassy in the crisis. They added that it is difficult to make a complete assessment due to the harsh conditions on the ground, and that they are investigating whether more Israeli hikers are missing.

The Foreign Ministry said it is still following up reports and is waiting for information from the embassy in Kathmandu, which is in contact with Nepali authorities.

Nearly 170 people were trekking toward the Thorang La pass along the well-travelled Annapurna route on Tuesday afternoon when the snowstorm hit. Nepali authorities said some people were still out of contact as bad weather had affected telecommunications, but the number was uncertain. Three yak herders also died in Naar village of Manang district.

Rabbi David Slavin, director of Chabad in Nepal, said uncertainty prevails in the region. “We know that approximately 200 Israelis are in the region, the majority of whom have been evacuated, however we still don’t have an exact number of missing people,” he said. The Chabad House in Nepal has set up a situation room, which has been flooded with phone calls from concerned relatives. On Chabad Nepal’s Facebook page, relatives have been posting messages trying to ascertain the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Nadav Kalifa, deputy head of the Harel 669 rescue unit, said that few of the trekkers had made contact with Israel and that there was no accurate information available about either the dead or the injured.

He added that the Nepalese army had taken responsibility for the rescue and was providing assistance by both helicopter and units on the ground.

Dalia Weissbord, an Israel trekker currently in Katmandu, spoke to Haaretz from Kathmandu. She said some treks had already been canceled on Monday due to bad weather. "As far as I know those that set out for the treks were aware of the danger and the harsh weather conditions," she said.

Nepal has experienced bad weather this week, partly caused by Cyclone Hudhud in neighboring India.

DPA and The Associated Press contributed to this report.