Former educators charged over fatal hike in flooded riverbed

Ex-director and counselor of Bnei Zion academy accused of ignoring repeated weather warnings and refusing to cancel trip during flash flood season, resulting in deaths of 10 teens

Rescue forces near the scene where 10 young Israelis were swept to their deaths in flash floods in the Tzafit riverbed, near the Dead Sea in southern Israel, on April 26, 2018. (Maor Kinsbursky/Flash90)
Rescue forces near the scene where 10 young Israelis were swept to their deaths in flash floods in the Tzafit riverbed, near the Dead Sea in southern Israel, on April 26, 2018. (Maor Kinsbursky/Flash90)

Two former employees of a pre-military academy who organized a desert hike last year in which 10 teenagers were swept to their deaths by a flash flood were charged Monday over their deaths.

Bnei Zion academy’s ex-director Yuval Kahan and ex-counselor Aviv Bardichev were charged in Beersheba District Court with 10 counts each of negligent homicide, which carries a penalty of up to 12 years in prison per count.

Prosecutors also charged the former administrators with causing grievous bodily harm for their role in organizing the ill-advised hike to the Tzafit stream in April 2018.

Both were charged with homicide, despite a police recommendation that Kahan be charged with the lesser crime of manslaughter because he received a less specific weather warning than Bardichev ahead of the trip.

In the indictment, prosecutors said the defendants’ “recklessness” and refusal to take precautions caused the deaths of the 10 high school seniors and the injury of two others.

Volunteers from the ZAKA emergency response service transport the bodies of Israeli teenagers killed in a flash flood near the Dead Sea on April 26, 2018. (ZAKA)

According to the charge sheet, Bnei Zion administrators last April insisted on taking a group of 25 students on a hike near the Dead Sea, despite receiving numerous warnings about the severe weather.

Yuval Kahan. (Courtesy: Bnei Zion pre-military academy)

Bardichev is alleged to have changed the route of the trip from the Tze’elim stream to the Tzafit stream despite being warned by a weather forecasting company not to travel in the area due to expected flooding.

Kahan, meanwhile, allegedly knew about the route change but chose to trust Bardichev’s judgment, and ignored warnings of heavy rains and severe weather conditions.

In a WhatsApp message ahead of the trip, they assured participants that there was nothing to worry about.

The students were caught in the flooding while hiking in the Tzafit stream, a popular hiking trail along a seasonal riverbed in the southern Dead Sea area.

A composite photo of victims of a flash flood in southern Israel on April 27, 2018. Ilan Bar Shalom (TL), Shani Shamir (TC), Agam Levy (TR), Romi Cohen (ML), Tzur Alfi (MC), Ella Or (MR), Gali Balali (BL), Maayan Barhum (BC), Yael Sadan (BR) (Facebook/courtesy)

Nine teenage girls and one boy were killed when a massive flood swept through the narrow canyon: Shani Shamir, Ella Or, Maayan Barhum, Yael Sadan, Tzur Alfi, Agam Levy, Romi Cohen, Gali Balali, Adi Raanan and Ilan Bar Shalom.

After the indictment was handed down Monday, parents of the teens expressed relief the educators were being charged.

“This is a difficult day — perhaps one of the most difficult — but it is comforting to know that the more serious charges were filed, and neither of them is getting off easy,” Ella Or’s father Itzik told Hebrew-language media outlets.

“I just hope that the court deals with them fairly during the trial and during sentencing, because this is a tragedy that should have never happened,” he said.

Other parents called for an independent commission be set up to investigate the incident and monitor oversight at premilitary academies.

Friends and family mourn near the fresh grave of Ella Or during her funeral in Mishor Adumim on April 27, 2018. Or was one of 10 Israeli teens killed in a flash flood on April 26, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We want to change the oversight at the Education and Defense ministries,” Romi Cohen’s father Ofer said. “The state needs to make this a national priority.”

“We have no choice but to accept this indictment as is, and even if the judges hand down the harshest punishment and they go to jail to 10-12 years, that won’t placate us,” Cohen said.

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