AMMAN: Laughing, chattering, happy and excited, the children from Victoria College in Amman piled onto their school bus, ready for the outing they had been looking forward to all week. The plan was for a trip to Wadi Zarqa Maein, a heritage site of rock formations and thermal springs next to the Dead Sea, about 40km southwest of the Jordanian capital.
The children, seventh and eighth graders aged from about 11 to 14, spoke of the lunchtime picnic they would enjoy on Thursday among the rock pools and the reed beds. Instead, a freak rainstorm created a flash flood in the wadi and at least 21 children and teachers were swept to their deaths.
Twenty-four hours later, Jordan was still in a state of shock — combined with widespread anger and frustration that such a tragedy could have been allowed to occur.
“My grief and pain is beyond description, and it is only equal to my anger at those who failed to take measures that could have prevented this painful incident,” King Abdullah said.
“I offer condolences to myself and to Jordan for the loss of my Jordanian family. The suffering of every father, mother and family caused by this incident is my suffering.”
The Royal Hashemite Court ordered the lowering of the Jordanian flag to half-mast as a mark of respect for those who lost their lives.
Among the families of the children caught up in the flood, the grief was palpable. Ali Rahoumi, an Iraqi resident, broke down in tears when he was told that his only son was among those missing. Rahoumi lost his wife a month ago, he told Prime Minister Omar Razzaz, who was trying to comfort him.
For many families there was no end to the grief, but they continued to live in hope that their loved ones would be found alive, as the search continued.
Mystery surrounds why the school trip went ahead at all, at a time of year when the weather in Jordan can be dangerous and unpredictable. Over the past week, the Jordan Meteorological Department’s daily weather forecasts warned of poor conditions, including heavy rain and dust that was expected to blanket most of the country, and urged people to take precautions. Thursday’s tragedy suggests that no one was paying attention.
In the immediate aftermath of the flood, the Jordanian government attempted to apportion blame for the tragedy to the school, for planning a trip to a non-approved destination.
The school had approval for a trip to Al-Azraq, an eco-tourism destination in Jordan’s eastern desert, not to the Dead Sea, Minister of State for Media Affairs Jumana Ghunaimat said. “It is clear that there is a violation; the school that organized the trip did not abide by public-safety regulations which stipulate that students must not swim and must be kept away from waterways,” she said.
However, a document made available to Arab News showed that the permission issued by the relevant ministry indicated that the school had adhered to the approved route.
Nevertheless, Minister of State for Legal Affairs Mubarak Abu Yamin said the government would hold the school accountable, administratively and criminally.
“We have already started our internal investigation, in coordination and cooperation with the attorney general’s office, to determine the responsibility and to identify causes and reasons that lead to this catastrophe,” he said. “We will make sure the rule of the law is observed and implemented.”
The Ministry of Education has launched a full-scale investigation into the incident, spokesman Walid Al-Jallad said, and the ministry was keen to cooperate fully with all concerned parties.
Civil engineer Maysarah Malas told Arab News on Friday that the school had to shoulder the responsibility for organizing a school trip despite a weather warning notice issued by the Jordan Meteorological Department.
However, he said: “Blaming the school management does not relieve the ministry or the minister himself from responsibility. The weather had started to deteriorate in the early hours of the day. The minister should have issued instructions to all schools to cancel any plans for school trips, but he did not.”