“I saw the water dragging children away”: Catastrophic Night in the Dead Sea

“I saw the water dragging children away”: Catastrophic Night in the Dead Sea

October 27, 2018

By Dana Gibreel & Shaker Jarrar
Translated by: Hani Barghouthi

It was almost 2AM on Friday when Tamer Abu Sondos, the father of missing 14 year-old Milar, called his brother Osama to inform him that they had not found her amongst the bodies at al-Bashir Hospital in Amman. Osama, who was at the scene of the flood, responded: “thank God”; this increased the chances of their daughter being alive. It also brought on more determination to continue the search following news that it had been halted at midnight to be continued in the morning. Civil Defense Directorate (CDD) forces would later deny this news.

Two hours before that, at midnight, Milar’s mother was floored when a doctor at al-Shouna al-Jaboubiya Hospital informed her that her daughter was not at the hospital, and she heard that the search was stopped. Al-Shouna al-Jaboubiya Hospital, near the scene of the incident, was the last place the family looked for the girl after moving between al-Bashir, as-Salt, and al-Shouna al-Jaboubiya hospitals repeatedly, without any news of their daughter. Milar’s cousins decided to conduct their own search.

On Thursday afternoon, a Victoria College School bus was parked in Ein al-Zara, a few kilometres from the intersection that leads to the Dead Sea Panorama. This was part of a school trip initially scheduled for Wadi Zarqa Ma’in, a watery valley adjacent to the Dead Sea and split into two parts; the lower one begins in Ma’in and ends in the Dead Sea in al-Zara, and is a popular tourist attraction with people taking walks below the bridge. The students had split up in teams, one of which was walking in the bottom of the valley, said a surviving teacher to Al Mamlaka. This was a part of “Against the Current adventure” offered by Jordan echo, a tour organisation company the school collaborated with.

Many students disembarked from the bus to walk around, seventh grader Ahmad Jaloudi among them. Alongside them were many families there to do the same and picnic, including the family of Wa’el Ali, and Ahmad the Palestinian tourist from Nablus. While they were there, a torrential flood was suddenly upon them from the peak of the mountain from Madaba. It was formed as a result of the heavy rains Jordan saw on Thursday.

The flood overtook the students, and some of the other visitors. 20 died, mostly children, and 33 were injured, including some of the security force cadres. CDD director, Farid  al-Shar’, told 7iber around 10AM Friday morning, that no news was available regarding missing persons, but that CDD was standing by for updates. Up until then, Sara Abu Sido’s parents were still looking for their daughter.

Officially, various government agencies made statements, most notably the prime minister’s tweet laying blame and responsibility on the school that arranged the field trip, because it changed the scheduled destination after having acquired approval from the Ministry of Education to organise a trip to al-Azraq, not the Dead Sea. Statements promising strict retribution for the school came from government spokesperson Jumana Ghunaimat and Minister of State for Legal Affairs Mubarak Abu Yamin, who said that the school will be prosecuted legally and criminally.

Official “Israeli” sources said yesterday that the Occupation Army had participated in search and rescue operations, upon the “Jordanian government’s request”. Government has yet to confirm or deny.

Gendarmerie and CDD forces at the scene of the incident, and signs warning against swimming and collapse.

The search for the missing

“They would have lit up the mountain if she’d been Razzaz’s daughter, or Rawabdeh’s”, says one of Milar’s relatives, infuriated with the alleged decision to halt the search.

Al-Shar’ spoke to 7iber denying that the search was halted at midnight, saying that some may have misinterpreted a shift change as a complete stop. He added that at certain locations, personnel had been reduced out of a fear of collapse or torrents.

Milar’s cousins, carried by 4x4s belonging to volunteers on the scene, drove towards the spot where the torrent met the sea, after midnight having received news of a black sweater being found there. Milar had been wearing black clothes, according to them, and this was after a surviving friend of Milar’s said that the latter had come out of the torrent.

The girl’s uncles and her relatives approached the sea, and CDD cadres followed suit to offer help, as well as the volunteers and their cars, but they turned up nothing except a shoe they are not sure belonged to their daughter.

CDD forces pleaded with the girl’s family to return to a higher spot in which there would be less fear for their lives; heavy rainfall had commenced again, and news was warning of a new flood from Madaba.

The girl’s uncles sat on the edge of the hill, and one of them exclaimed: “how can they stop the search? What if she’s alive and hit her head on a stone, do we leave her for the dogs to finish the job?” They refused to return before finding the girl.

Around 10AM on Friday morning, CDD found the body of a girl the flood had dragged to the sea. It was Milar Abu Sondos.

Witnesses to the incident

On his way to Aqaba Ahmad stopped by al-Zara, where Wadi Zarqa Ma’in leads to the Dead Sea. “People always talk about it, so I thought I would stop by and check it out”, he says on the phone to 7iber. He had come from Nablus several days earlier to celebrate his sister’s wedding, and decided to spend the rest of his holiday on a tour of Jordan.

While Ahmad stood on a hill near the torrent, the flood came suddenly from the mountain, uprooting everything in it wake according to him, rocks and people; “I saw the water dragging children away with my very eyes”. He also saw a man stuck to a boulder for a long time.

Close to him the child Ahmad Jaloudi had been washed away by the flood, but Ahmad the young man, who wished to remain anonymous, managed to grab the child. He described his medical state as difficult.

The child managed to give Ahmad his father, Maher Jaloudi’s phone number. He was transported to an ambulance which arrived within 30 minutes, according to Ahmad. Maher headed to the hospital after checking the news, and his son was in a moderate state, constantly vomiting sand and mud, but he stabilised.

Next to Ahmad’s room, Wa’el Ali was injured, having been stuck on a boulder for a long time, trying to save some of the children.

Ali’s family was on a hiking trip, according to Wa’el’s wife, and they had finished barbecuing without swimming because of the weather. The family packed up preparing to go home in Qweismeh after it had started to rain, but the flood descended suddenly, washing the children away with it, so Wa’el and his three brothers leaped to the children’s aid. They went down the torrent and did not come back up.

Until 11PM, the time of interview with Wa’el, he and his wife did not know that his brothers survived. That is because Wa’el had grabbed his brother and held on the a boulder during the flood, but a high wive covered them and Wa’el lost his grip on his brother. He held on the boulder, and managed a while later from reaching the edge and waiting for CDD.

Wa’el estimates that CDD arrived around 45 minutes later, and he started calling out until they found him and transported him toAl-Shouna al-Jaboubiya Hospital with fractures and bruises.

Rage in front of the school

Dozens of people congregated in front of Victoria College Schools in Khalda (Amman), like they did in front of Al-Shouna al-Jaboubiya Hospital, waiting for official statements and answers about missing or injured children or relatives.

Outside the school, a teacher told one of the parents to call as-Salt hospital to ask about his missing student, after which an argument broke out about as-Salt hospital’s landline response rate.

The teacher tells 7iber that the school’s headmistress is unavailable, having been taken to hospital for treatment for shock; her daughter was amongst the missing children (until that time). No one was allowed to make any statements, but other teachers around her were crying over the confirmed death of one of their colleagues in the incident. She had been one of five chaperones on the trip, with around 40 students.

In the back, a mother stands in shock, she says her son had come home the previous day telling her that his classmates were going on a field trip. He did not feel like going, and prefered to stay home. He was having a breakdown, then, waiting to hear if his friends were among the deceased.

Heavy rainfall persisted in the Dead Sea area until 3AM, various floods formed and three main locations between Amman and the Dead Sea saw collapses and closures.

Some columns holding up the Zarqa Ma’in Bridge collapsed in the morning, according to security cadres in the area, who warned those around against walking and standing on it.

Another cement bridge collapsed between the Hotel Area and the Panorama, as well as the street parallel to the bridge to which traffic had been diverted around a year ago.

On the other side of the Amman-Dead Sea road, the Ma’in-Panorama road has several closures along the whole length, as a result of several collapses in the mountains surrounding it, leading to piles of rocks and boulders. Traffic stopped for over an hour and a half, before Ministry of Public Works tractors cleared the road.

The Directorate of General Security had announced that all roads leading to the search and rescue locations would be closed at 7AM Friday morning.

Collapsed street, dawn of Friday.