Nine Teenagers Killed After Flash Floods Hit Israel's South; Rescuers Halt Search for Last Missing Teen

The hikers were part of a pre-army preparatory program ■ Police open investigation ■ Netanyahu: 'Israel grieves for the young lives cut off by this tragedy'

Rescue helicopter over Nahal Tsafit, April 26, 2018.Eli Hershkovitz.

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

Nine hikers from a pre-army preparatory program were killed in a flash flood on Thursday in the vicinity of the Tzafit stream, near the Dead Sea in the south of the country.

The nine hikers, eight female and one male, were part of a group of about 25 who were hiking in the vicinity of the stream near the Dead Sea. One member of the group 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. The search for the missing person, conducted by police volunteers and Israeli army rescue helicopters, stopped as night fell.

Search and rescue operation in the Nahal Tsafit area

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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.

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.

Fifteen other members of the group, which is based in Tel Aviv, were rescued. Two were suffering from hypothermia and were taken to Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva for treatment.

>> 'We're going to die': Text messages reveal teenage flood victim feared for her life on hike >>

"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."

President Reuven Rivlin wrote about the flood on Twitter, saying "Our thoughts and prayers go to our brothers, children, our loved ones, and those in danger. We're following the situation in the south closely and are sending a warm embrace to the affected families. We will strengthen and lend help to the forces who are currently working to rescue, find and treat those injured. I ask all to please follow their instructions."

Israelis watch flooded water running through a valley blocking the main road along the Dead Sea in the Judean desert, near the desert fortress of Masada north of Ein Bokek, following heavy rainfall in the mountains on April 25, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP
A map of the Nahal Tsafit area.

Police launch investigation

Police have opened an investigation into the deaths, with an expected  focus on the organizers of the pre-army program on suspicion of of death by negligence. At this stage, however, police efforts will remain focused on finding the one hiker who remains missing.

All of the agencies responsible for collecting rainfall and flooding information in the south saw to it to issue rather clear warnings on Wednesday and Thursday regarding the risk of flooding in the area where the group was hiking near the Tzafit stream. The warning related to general areas and did not relate specifically to the stream. (More specific warnings are not issued because it is difficult to predict what will happen in a specific stream).

The Israel Meteorological Service also issued a warning on the risk of flooding in the Dead Sea region, the southern Judean Desert and the Arava. It should be noted that even relatively small quantities of rainfall in the desert can cause powerful flood waters.

A rescue helicopter bringing the wounded hikers to the hospital, April 26, 2018.
\ Ilan Assayag
Stormy weather in Israel's south.

Warnings were also issued by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Tamar Regional Council, the local government in the area around the Dead Sea and to its west and south. The Tamar Regional Council asked that members of the public refrain from coming to the Dead Sea area and the Arava region to its south as a result of the dangers posed by flooding and bad weather.

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.

Earlier on Thursday, a hiker in the vicinity of the Michmash stream suffered fractures following a ten-meter (32 foot) fall and was evacuated in moderate condition.

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

Two teenagers died in flash floods on Wednesday as Israel endured heavy rains and hail.

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.

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. 

The rain is expected to come to an end on Friday night. Temperatures will remain below normal for the end of April. Saturday will be warmer with temperatures reaching seasonal averages. Sunday will be pleasant and warmer.