Grief gave way to anger and demands for accountability from ordinary Jordanians to King Abdullah himself on Friday over the deaths of at least 21 people in flash floods near the Dead Sea, many of them school students.
The Jordanian government launched investigations into the field trip organised by an Amman private school to a Dead Sea valley on Thursday despite official warnings of heavy rains forecast to hit the kingdom.
King Abdullah, who had been active in the emergency operations room and following up on rescue efforts late on Thursday and Friday, cancelling a trip to Bahrain to address an annual security summit, expressed his anger at the negligence that led to the deaths of schoolgirls, teachers and residents in the area.
“My grief and pain are immense, matched only by my anger towards those who failed to take the necessary measures that could have prevented this painful incident from happening,” King Abdullah said in a rare tweet on Friday.
“I condole myself and Jordan for losing members of my bigger family. What has afflicted every father, mother and family afflicts me also,” the king said.
Later on Friday, King Abdullah chaired an emergency meeting of the National Policies Council, a grouping of policy and security experts, to review the tragedy.
Large stretches of the Dead Sea highway remained closed to traffic because of the rescue operations, a bridge collapse and fears of further floods with forecasts of more rain.
Rescue and recovery attempts were continuing as of Friday afternoon, as civil defence staff and the royal navy deployed divers and rescue dogs to scour the mud, debris and shorelines in the southern Dead Sea area. By Friday afternoon, the official death toll had risen to 21, with more than 40 others injured and several still missing.
Among the dead were three Iraqi nationals; two Iraqi students and an Iraqi woman in her 20s who was believed to have been a chaperone on the ill-fated school trip, the Jordan Civil Defence said, noting that there were no other foreign nationals or tourists among the fatalities.
The number of victims and difficulties in identification meant that the ministry of health was able to hand over only 12 bodies by mid-day on Friday. Two of the victims had yet to be identified. Only a handful of victims had been buried by mid-Friday.
The government and local media delayed releasing the names of the victims out of respect for the families. However, some families shared photos of their children on social media, asking for prayers.
Jordanians across the kingdom held special prayers for the victims following Friday noon prayers, while clerics prayed for patience and strength for victims’ families, noting that parents had “lost a piece of themselves”. Few imams were willing to lay blame.
But shock and grief over the accident slowly transformed into anger and demands for accountability over what many are calling a “preventable tragedy”.
Much of the ire was directed at the Victoria College School, a private institution in an upscale neighbourhood in West Amman that costs thousands of dollars per year and caters to an upper-middle class Jordanians and Arab nationals.
The government was swift to denounce the school for flouting ministry regulations.
According to the Education Ministry, Victoria College School committed three violations by sending the busload of schoolgirls to the southern Dead Sea. The first was changing from the trip's approved destination of Azraq in Jordan’s Eastern desert to the southern Dead Sea; the second was exceeding the 30-student limit with 37 students; and the third was informing families that the trip to Zarqa Maeen near the Dead Sea was approved by the ministry, when they were only permitted to travel to the original, desert destination.
According to details made available to the local media, the trip was aimed at getting students “in touch with nature” and included an “adventure” excursion. Witnesses said the students had gone down a valley near the Dead Sea with their teachers to eat lunch and explore the area when the flash floods hit.
Jordanians on social media and radio derided the school, even flooding its Facebook page with comments such as “school or graveyard?”, calling its administration “reckless” and warning that “the fate of these children and what they had suffered will haunt you to your graves”.
According to local media reports, families had paid 30 dinars (Dh155) per student for the trip, nicknamed by some in local media as a “field trip of death”. Several families pulled their children out of the trip because of the bad weather forecast.
Some citizens took to social media to also blame the government for not banning all trips during periods of inclement weather, and the authorities for not stopping and turning back a bus full of schoolchildren in an area where flash floods are known to occur.
Parliament's education committee said MPs would meet Education Minister Azmi Muhafazah on Sunday to “uncover all the details of the incident” and to “hold accountable all who were negligent” and responsible for the tragedy.
The government is weighing a decision to suspend all school trips in the kingdom until spring, according to government sources. The decision, which is awaiting the outcome of initial police and parliamentary investigations to the Dead Sea tragedy, is expected within days, sources confirmed.
While temperate weather makes travel in Jordan’s desert of Wadi Rum, Petra and Aqaba favourable for tourists, winter in Jordan occasionally brings flash floods, dust storms and high winds that can make travel between the governorates, and particularly along valleys and steep mountain routes, hazardous.
The five-star hotels located at the northern tip of the Dead Sea close to Amman and at high vantage points, were unaffected by Thursday’s floods and are expected to operate as normal.