Israel Opens Investigation Into Flash Flood Deaths of Nine Teenage Hikers

Police likely suspects deaths by negligence ■ Probe to focus on pre-army program staff who organized the trip despite flash flood warnings

A member of the Ben Tzion mechina program in Tel Aviv after a flash flood killed 9 members of the program.
Ofer Vaknin

UPDATE: Death toll in Dead Sea flash floods rises to 10 as last missing teen found

Israel Police are opening an investigation into the deaths of nine teenage hikers on Thursday who were killed in a flash flood near the Dead Sea.

The investigation will focus on the staff of the pre-army preparatory program that organized the trip despite flash flood warnings from the authorities. They are likely to be investigated on suspicion of causing death by negligence, which carries with it a prison sentence of three years.

Police at the Ben Tzion mechina in Tel Aviv.
Ofer Vaknin

>> Nine teenagers killed, one missing after flash floods hit Israel's south ■ 'We're going to die': Text messages reveal teenage flood victim feared for her life on hike >>

The nine killed, eight young women and one man aged 18, were swept away by a flash flood during a hike in Nahal Tsafit, south of the Dead Sea. One person is still missing. A search party has found the body of a teenage girl of around 17 in the Dead Sea area, but authorities do not yet know whether it is the body of the missing teen. Fifteen members of the group were rescued, two of whom suffered from hypothermia. The injured were taken to Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva.

Text messages show that one of the girls who was killed told friends she was worried for her safety on the hike, the Israel Television News Company reported. "I can't believe I'm actually going hiking in weather like this. It doesn't make sense to go to a place that's completely flooded. It's tempting fate. We're going to die – I'm serious," she wrote to her friends on the messaging application WhatsApp.

>> 'We Deserve Answers:' Families, Friends Lay to Rest Teens Killed in Flash Floods

A map of the Nahal Tsafit area.

The nine victims have been identified by authorities as Ella Or, from the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim; Gali Belali, from the central city of Givatayim; Agam Levi, from Moshav Herut in central Israel; Shani Samir, from the central town of Shoham; Adi Ra’anan, from the coastal community of Mikhmoret; Yael Sadan and Maayan Barhum from Jerusalem; Romi Cohen, from Moshav Maor in the north and Tzur Alfi, from the central town of Mazekeret Batya.

A police force on Thursday evening went to the preparatory program's center in Tel Aviv and questioned the head of the program and two counselors. However, police say they are now focusing their efforts on finding the last missing hiker.

The Ben Tzion pre-army program, called a mechina in Hebrew, is pluralistic, with religious and secular Israelis, who take a year between high school and the army to study, volunteer and travel around Israel.

"Israel grieves the promising young lives that were cut off by this tragedy in the Arava," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "We embrace the families with grief and pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded."

Search and rescue operation in the Nahal Tsafit area

Agencies responsible for collecting rainfall and flooding information in the south issued warnings on Wednesday and Thursday regarding the risk of flooding in the area where the group was hiking. The warnings however did not relate specifically to the Tsafit stream.

Due to high winds on Thursday, the Masada National Park near the Dead Sea was closed to the public. The Barak stream, further south, was declared off limits to visitors after the floods damaged safety installations there. A stretch of Highway 40 in the south was also closed to traffic.

Israel was hit by unusually heavy rain on Wednesday, accompanied by hail in many places. Coming at the tail end of the winter rainy season, it took many Israelis by surprise and caused flooding around the country. Two teenagers died Wednesday in flash floods in Israel and the West Bank.

The winds are expected to continue on Friday, and similar caution is advised.

A meteorologist from the Meteo-Tech weather firm said the weather was caused by a large and powerful storm cloud extending 10 kilometers (6 miles) into the atmosphere. Twenty-five millimeters (an inch) of rain fell in Tel Aviv in the space of an hour while the Jerusalem area was hit by a huge 45 to 50 millimeter (about 2 inches) downpour.