A rescuer said Sunday that the 10 young Israelis who died in a flash flood while hiking in the Judean Desert on Thursday were just 300-400 meters (around 1,000 feet) away from the end of their hike, and that had the powerful current hit five minutes later they would have been safe.
The 10 victims were part of a group of 25 students on a hike organized by the Tel Aviv-based Bnei Zion pre-military academy, and were set to attend its program in the coming year. Their deaths Thursday amid unseasonable rains and warnings of flash floods in the Tzafit riverbed where they were hiking shocked the country.
“They were, I estimate, about 300 or 400 meters away from ending the hike,” Dotan Sherf, a firefighter and rescue expert who previously worked as a rafter and rafting instructor, told Army Radio. “It means that had they walked through that crevice for 5-10 minutes they would be out. They were five minutes from the end of the hike.”
However, being where they were when the water hit them, “nobody should’ve survived,” he also said. “From my experience, it is very hard to escape from such a flash flood. I can say that anyone who survived has had the hand of God touch them.”
Sherf, one of the first people to reach the scene, said he was 10 minutes away when he was alerted about the incident. He said the “horrors” he saw when he arrived rivaled anything he had seen in his 20 years as a firefighter.
“When we got there, bodies had already washed out from the stream and those who survived were in the upper stream,” he said, praising the army rescue unit 669 for its quick action, but also lamenting that the teens had “died needlessly.”
Sherf said those who died were caught in a narrow “bottleneck” in the stream, where water that gushed in from a wider passage became deeper and washed them away. “It isn’t only water; it is also mud and rocks,” he added, explaining why it would have been difficult to survive.
Regarding the decision to take the hike despite the flood warnings, Sherf said that while the weather in the nearby town of Arad had been stormy that day, when he arrived at the Dead Sea area, it was hot and sunny.
This “may have misled them to think it was safe,” he said, adding that the rainwater in Arad had flowed to the Tzafit River.
Seven of the funerals — those of Ella Or, Maayan Barhoum, Yael Sadan, Ilan Bar Shalom, Agam Levy, Shani Shamir and Tzur Alfi — took place on Friday, drawing thousands of mourners. The three remaining funerals for Romi Cohen, Gali Balali, and Adi Raanan were to take place Sunday.
Thousands gathered in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening for a candlelight vigil in memory of the victims.
Attendees converged on Rabin Square from around the country, lighting candles and singing somber songs to memorialize those killed.
Similar vigils in memory of the victims were held at Jerusalem’s Zion Square, as well as in the central town of Mazkeret Batya, where one of the flash flood’s victims — Tzur Alfi — resided. Both memorials attracted hundreds of young Israelis.
Israeli police are investigating whether the organizers of the hike from the Bnei Zion pre-military academy lied to participants about the safety of the desert trail they planned to take, as well as about their coordination, or lack thereof, with relevant authorities.
The head of the pre-military academy and an instructor were arrested on Friday on suspicion of negligent homicide in ignoring the flash flood warnings. They remained in custody as of Sunday afternoon.