Lawyers for the head of a pre-military academy said Sunday that “his heart is torn” over the death of 10 youths in a flash flood during a hike last week near the Dead Sea.
The 10 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.
“Yuval [Kahan] is in agony and his heart is torn because of the terrible disaster and loss of the lives of the youths, his students, and those who were supposed to study at the academy,” attorneys Nati Simchony and Asaf Klein said in a statement.
“Yuval is fully cooperating with investigators out of a desire for law enforcement to probe the matter thoroughly and arrive at the truth,” they added.
Kahan, the head of Bnei Zion, was arrested on Friday on suspicion of negligent homicide in ignoring the flash flood warnings, despite the stormy weather. Aviv Bardichev, the group’s instructor, was arrested on the same suspicions.
Officers raided Bnei Zion’s offices on Sunday and took folders and computers. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told the Ynet news site that police suspect the detainees coordinated their testimonies with one another ahead of time, and thus attempted to obstruct the investigation.
Israeli police are investigating whether the organizers of the hike 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.
In a WhatsApp message that was sent to participants on Wednesday ahead of the trip, organizers assured participants that there was nothing to worry about despite forecasts of heavy rain in the flash flood-prone area.
Hadashot TV news reported Sunday that suspicions of wrongdoing by Kahan and Bradichiv have grown as a result of the investigations, and the two will be made to face each other during an interrogation on Monday, and will be confronted with new details.
Among the evidence gathered by police is testimony from an Air Force weather forecaster who told Kahan that heavy rain was expected on Thursday. According to Hadashot news, a guide from the group spoke to the forecaster on the phone on Thursday morning and was warned the rainfall would increase, but the group continued on the hike nonetheless.
Police also took testimony from a weather forecasting company that told the academy it was dangerous to go on the hike and did not give permission, the report said.
Earlier Sunday, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira ordered an investigation be opened into the circumstances of the hike.
The Education Ministry and Defense Ministry have exchanged accusations over which body was supposed to approve trips by the pre-military academy, as both government offices provide it with funding.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Friday that he had spoken with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who agreed to establish a committee to probe the hike.
“There is no doubt that the decision to set out on the hike was a mistake. A parent who sends a kid to a bonding trip with a pre-military academy needs to see the [child] return home safely,” Bennett told Army Radio.
Bennett, who was in the US at the time of incident, cut short his trip and returned to Israel on Sunday.
“We have a large educational system that needs to be dealt with immediately. We must continue hiking in [Israel]. We need to continue the pre-military programs. We must embrace and strengthen the families… and therefore I think my place is here and not in New York,” he said.
On Sunday, the last three victims of the flood — Romi Cohen, Gali Balali, and Adi Raanan — were buried. The funerals of the other seven — Ella Or, Maayan Barhoum, Yael Sadan, Ilan Bar Shalom, Agam Levy, Shani Shamir and Tzur Alfi — took place Friday.
Separately, Soroka Medical Center said a teenager hospitalized as a result of the incident was sent to the hospital’s ICU unit for further monitoring and remains in stable condition.
The father of the teen, who was named as Ron Hakim, told media outlets that his son survived the flood by clutching a tree branch.