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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

King expresses anger as authorities work to identify 21 school children killed in Jordan floods

The search for more missing people has been hampered by difficult terrain, writes Taylor Luck in Amman

A general view show the location of the accident where people, mainly schoolchildren and teachers, were killed on Thursday in a flash flood near the Dead Sea, Jordan October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
A general view show the location of the accident where people, mainly schoolchildren and teachers, were killed on Thursday in a flash flood near the Dead Sea, Jordan October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Jordanian health officials are still working to identify 21 school children and citizens killed in a flash flood in the Dead Sea last week as search efforts in the area widened to search for more people feared missing.

In statements to local media on Saturday, the country’s National Centre for Forensic Medicine said it had taken DNA samples of the 21 bodies recovered from the southern Dead Sea area over the past two days in order to confirm the identity of the victims.

Health officials and authorities say the tests are essential not only for identification, but to determine who remains missing in the Dead Sea area.

Complicating search and identification efforts were the type of injuries sustained when heavy floods carried debris and boulders. Several people, unbeknownst to their families, were also at the Zarqa Maeen valley, which is known for its fresh springs and rock climbing, in addition to the group of 37 school children and seven adult chaperones on a field trip when the flash floods struck late last week.

Search and recovery efforts were ongoing as of Saturday afternoon, with Jordan’s civil defence department issuing a statement that it was widening its search radius to 15 kilometres with the assistance of the royal navy and rescue helicopters.

The local geography has complicated search efforts. Zarqa Maeen includes deep and narrow gorges and rock formations several kilometres long, while much of the southern Dead Sea includes similar valleys.

Also on Saturday, Prince Hashem bin Hussein and Prince Faisal Hussein began visiting the families of students killed in the floods to offer the King’s condolences.

The government has repeatedly stated that the Victoria College School in upscale west Amman flouted several regulations in organizing their ill-fated trip to the southern Dead Sea on a day authorities and weather forecasters had warned of heavy rains, high winds and storms.

The school had applied for permission to travel to Azraq in the Eastern desert, but changed the destination to the southern Dead Sea without informing the Education Ministry. The school had placed 37 children and seven chaperones on the bus when the permit allowed for 30.

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The government on Saturday also criticized the school for taking children under the age of 14 on “adventure” tourism and rock climbing in a valley, stressing that such activities were not permitted.

On Sunday, the Jordanian government and parliament were set to launch investigations into the incident to determine if negligence led to the tragedy and if so by whom. King Abdullah on Saturday expressed his “anger” over those who failed to take the necessary precautions that led to the deaths and during an emergency session of the National Policies Council called for a detailed and accurate investigation to determine who bears responsibility for the tragedy.

While the months of October and November are favourable for tourism to most of Jordan’s sights, such as Petra, the desert of Wadi Rum, Aqaba and the Dead Sea, winter weather bringing heavy rains makes so-called adventure tourism in some valleys, so-called wadis, dangerous.

The gorges and valleys under the auspices of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature and the Ministry of Tourism close in late October, while authorities and local residents strongly urge citizens and tourists against canyoning other valleys during the winter and times of rain, which can transform these narrow gorges into rushing rivers and flood-zones.