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Be Kind to this Daughter of Mine

 This short story is based on actual events and is dedicated to the memory of the 10 young adults who lost their lives in the tragedy of the Zafit River in the Negev Desert 26 April 2018.

Shir

My week did not start well.

Sunday traffic was heavier than usual; it took one and a half hours to get to work in the morning.

The drive home was not much better.

As I opened the door and stepped inside our house, my heart missed two beats ...

An M16 rifle was trained on my chest. It was black, shiny and totally real.

Am I in the middle of a bad dream and about to wake up?

"What the heck!" I said out loud as I caught my breath. "Shir, you never point a rifle at anyone, any time – is that clear?" I shouted.

My 17-year-old daughter lowered the M16 and said sheepishly, "Sorry Dad, but it's not loaded. I was just practising sighting through the scope when you walked through the door …"

Needless to say, her IDF soldier brother's rifle was not left unattended around the house again.

Shir had just applied to a prestigious pre-army academy Mechina (preparation course) of one year before going on to do the regular IDF service. It was a year of learning, enlightenment, touring the country and gaining leadership qualities. It was one of the most sought-after academies in the country, one that embraced religious and secular youths from all over.

Shir said with a smile that melted my anger: "I have great news! I just received my acceptance letter to the program." This was quite a feat, since only one in ten applicants get accepted. In some ways it was more difficult getting accepted for this Mechina than into the air force.

By Tuesday all was forgotten, and Shir was busy packing her gear for their first upcoming tiyul(tour) to the Negev desert in the South East of the country. A bone dry place where the average rainfall is less than three millimeters a year. The tour was an introduction to the other newly accepted students. These young adults were the cream of the crop from all over the country.

As we travelled to meet the bus, Shir was just so excited and looking forward to her new challenge.

She introduced me to one of the other students, Tzachi, who was tall, dark-haired, fit and strong. He had a square jaw and bright smiling eyes and had also just been accepted into the academy. Shir had met Tzachi at the theater group at school, and told me that he always tried to make her laugh and feel better, because that was just the type of guy he was.

On the radio, the weather report predicted freak thunderstorms for April, and three days of bad weather lay ahead. I was genuinely concerned and asked Shir to make sure that the councilors were truly on top of this.

Shir said "Dad, you always worry too much. Everything is under control; they know what they're doing and have tons of experience with these kinds of outings".

I asked for the head of the academy's phone number, just in case, and after talking to him, he also told me not to worry since he was in direct contact with the Air Force's chief weatherman, who happened to be one of his graduate students. "Don't worry, this outing will toughen them up."

On Wednesday we got word that Shir had arrived safely at the Arad youth hostel where they were staying overnight. She told us that the tour to the Zeilim River the next day had been changed due to the bad weather, and instead they were going for a 4-hour hike through the Zafit Wadi canyon.

Once again I texted her tour guide with my concerns and the reply was that the new route was out of harm's way.

Thursday morning came around and I still had a queasy feeling in my stomach. The traffic was worse than Sunday and I WattsApped Shir. She sent a selfie and captioned it "I'm still alive."

The weather really was bad for this time of year. Crazy thunderstorms were currently happening in Tel Aviv with ping pong ball sized hailstones dropping from the sky. The horizon was black and foreboding.

The queasy feeling returned. Shir's WhatsApp status had shown that she was last seen at 08:00. It was now 13:00 and still no word. I grabbed a coffee and said to myself, "Relax, you know there's no cell reception around that area".

It was still raining on my way home when I heard the news broadcast. Flash floods in the desert and a group of travelers was being evacuated from the Zafit River. My mouth went dry, this was too much. I turned the car around and headed South towards the Negev.

I immediately started calling all the contacts from the Academy.

All my calls went directly to voice mail.

Tzachi

Halfway through the tour Tzachi was helping the younger girls carry their packs and climb down over the boulders in the dry Wadi.

Shir was in right front of Tzachi.

It was now 13:30 and they were almost out of the steep Zafit river canyon.

"One last push", said Tzachi, "another half hour and we will be back at the buses …"

A deep gurgling, like someone had pulled the plug out of a bath, muffled out his last words. The sound got much louder and seemed to come from the bowels of the earth as the rumble turned to a ferocious torrent of oncoming water.

Everyone started shouting in panic. "Quick to higher ground, there's a flash flood!!"

Tzachi grabbed Shir's hand and yanked her onto his sturdy shoulders. Her tense muscles ached as she desperately tried to grab hold of the sheer rock face and climb up to safety.

A group of youths had managed to scramble up and were desperately clutching to the rock face with the water level rising up to their chests.

Tzachi was still hoisting other girls up as fast as he could, acting as a human bridge, so that they could grab handholds and pull themselves up. A few minutes later a massive wall of water came crashing down the valley. Boulders, trees and muddy debris decimated everything in its path.

Some of the students were simply swept away like matchsticks in a sea of water.

Overhead the sound of six helicopters could be heard, as the special 669 unit came to airlift them off the rocks one at a time.

As I turned into the emergency parking of the Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva, my knuckles had gone white from tightly gripping the steering wheel.

I was still hoping; praying; trying not to think.

There was as yet no word from Shir.

My cell phone only registered the last worried call from my wife.

I left the car and dashed inside, where I saw a group of frightened hypothermic young women huddled together. They had blankets covering their shoulders.

The group broke up as I approached and Shir turned around and fell into my arms sobbing hysterically.

I wrapped my arms around her cold body and felt her racing heartbeat against my chest.

I closed my eyes and my warm tears of relief and happiness splashed over her shoulder.

"It's okay, sweetie," were all the choked up words that I could say. We did not move for several minutes and I felt the relief pour back into my body as my clenched jaw began to relax. My prayers were answered.

Fate, serendipity and the heroism of a brave man were kind to this young daughter of mine.

A news flash informed us that this was the worst flooding in the area in ten years and that it had claimed ten young lives. They were swept away in the flood and did not make it out.

An enormously brave and kindhearted young man named Tzachi was one of them.

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Wednesday, 22 September 2021

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