Israeli police are investigating whether the organizers of a hike that resulted in the deaths of 10 teenage students in flash floods Thursday 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 Times of Israel has learned.
Police on Friday arrested the head of the Bnei Zion pre-military academy and the group’s tour guide on suspicion of negligent homicide, after a trip arranged by the Tel Aviv-based institution turned deadly as a result of heavy rains.
The two were questioned overnight Thursday-Friday over their failure to heed flooding warnings south of the Dead Sea and call off the hike, police said. A third suspect was also questioned and later released to house arrest.
Extending the remand of principal Yuval Kahan and tour guide Aviv Bardichev by five days Friday afternoon, Justice Eitan Gonen of the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court hinted at attempts to cover up information about the planning of the trip, saying there were “contradictions in the versions of events” that the two had given.
According to a Hadashot news report Friday night, the two told police that they had consulted with a weather forecasting company before setting out on the trip, as well as — unoffically — with an alumnus of the academy who now serves as a weather forecaster in the Israeli air force.
The two were apparently well aware of the problematic weather in the days leading up to the trip, and had changed the location of the planned hike twice due to the forecasts of rain and flooding. They were under the assumption that the hiking trail they had chosen would be safe until 3 p.m. on Thursday.
The 10 killed in the floods were in a group of 25 students on a hike organized by the academy. They were due to start the program in the coming year, and the hike was intended as a pre-program bonding excursion. Nine of the teenagers’ bodies were found in the course of the afternoon and evening on Thursday, and the tenth was discovered early on Friday morning.
Speaking to The Times of Israel Friday afternoon, a parent of a would-be participant of the trip who pulled out at the last minute said that police were trying to determine why organizers sent a message ahead of the hike saying it had been cleared with “the relevant authorities.”
The hike in the Tzafit River, a riverbed in the southern Dead Sea area, went ahead despite warnings of life-threatening weather conditions.
But in a WhatsApp message sent to participants on Wednesday ahead of the trip, organizers assured participants that there was nothing to worry about.
They insisted that the hike would be “fun and wet and an experience.” The students were urged to bring “a rain coat,” “a rain cover for your bags,” and “a change of dry clothes in case you need it.”
“Don’t worry,” the message read. “We are well-prepared for the hike and the academy has checked with the relevant authorities.”
The parent, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the case, said that police had asked their son if the organizers of the trip had elaborated about the supposed safety checks. The hike had been planned by 19-year-old current members of the academy’s program and investigators wanted to know who was said to have spoken with authorities: Bradichiv, the teenage organizers, or Bnei Zion staff members including Kahan.
“They asked if he thought it was possible that someone from above at the [academy] had told the [19-year-old] guides that checks had been done,” they said.
“No checks were done. The question is, who lied?” the parent posited, adding that police had asked to see all messages sent by organizers prior to the trip.
“The messages seem to be a key factor in the investigation,” the parent said.
Hadashot TV news reported on Friday night that the organizers of the trip claim to have consulted with experts, including weather forecasters. They were reported to have changed the route of the hike in accordance with advice they received, and to have been assured that the group would be clear of any potential danger areas in good time to avoid forecast flash floods.
The father of Romi Cohen, one of the teens killed in the flood, said the family would demand answers but was now focused on grieving.
“”It’s obvious the organization [of the hike] was a fiasco,” Ofer Cohen said. “There is a large-scale disaster here. The lives of 10 families have been ruined. The families deserve answers about this debacle. The writing was on the wall.”
He said he and other parents had not known the exact plans for the trip, and that when they heard the weather forecast, he and others tried unsuccessfully to have the hike canceled.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, an argument broke out between the ministries of education and defense over who was ultimately responsible for overseeing the academy’s hike, as both government offices provide the academy with funding.
The Defense Ministry insisted it was under the purview of the Education Ministry.
“By law, the Education Ministry is the body responsible for approving education programs for pre-army preparatory programs. The Defense Ministry is not responsible for the education plans, especially field trips,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Defense Ministry said it was “saddened the body that is responsible is not taking responsibility, but passing it on to someone else.”
The Education Ministry said it was not informed of the trip ahead of time and did not grant approval for it.
“The trip was not reported to us, our situation room was not told in advance, and we did not give any permission for such a trip,” the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry’s “situation room” is an office that is solely dedicated to approving and monitoring schools’ field trips. However, as Bnei Zion is a private institution and not part of the state education system, it is not legally required to receive approval from the center.
Dani Zamir, chairman of the Council of Pre-military Academies said that the trip was not under the auspices of either the Education Ministry or the Defense Ministry and that it was not abnormal for such a hike to go ahead without prior authorization.
“Yes, it’s possible to say that a trip like this falls between the gaps,” Zamir said Friday. “It’s far from ideal but that’s the situation.”
Police confirmed to The Times of Israel that the investigation was focused on the culprits responsible for the disastrous decision to hold the hike despite weather warnings.
“Investigators are looking at who coordinated the trip, who was responsible and who decided on which areas they were going to visit,” police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said. “In general a number of different directions are being looked into, including how they decide where they were going to go and what safety measures they considered.”
Rosenfeld confirmed that participants had been questioned by police and said it was “likely” that the investigation would expand to include parents of participants.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.