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Monday, 21 September 2020

Outrage, accusations of neglect, confusion reign over deaths of St. Catherine hikers

As four Egyptian hikers were found dead after being lost in Sinai's mountains, many blame the army for failing to rescue them; an unqualified guide is also a possible cause; military says it did all it could given rugged terrains

Hany El-Asmar and Osman El Sharnoubi, Wednesday 19 Feb 2014
Sinai
Mohamed Ramadan , Hagar Shalaby
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After the body of Mohamed Ramadan was recovered four days after he went missing in Sinai's mountainous terrain, many Egyptians were infuriated and accused the government of stalling rescue efforts. 

Ramadan, a filmmaker, was one of four Egyptian tourists who died in a blizzard near Egypt's Saint Catherine Monastery this week. 

The other three hikers who died – Hagar Shalaby, 21, Khaled El-Sebaei, 30, and Ahmed Abel-Azim, 28 – were found on Monday on the mountain of Gabal Al-Zaatar, near Farsh Al-Romana – a relatively flat area in the Wadi El-Gebal valley where the hikers had been staying before climbing Gabal Al-Zaatar.

The four surviving members of the group – Yousriya Abdel-Kadder, 28, Maha Shawki, 31, Ihab Kotb, 25, and Mohamed Farouk, 28 – were rescued in Farsh Al-Romana by Bedouin guides and army personnel on Monday and transferred by helicopter to Saint Catherine Hospital for treatment on Tuesday, a delay that led to evident outrage on social media.

"Military planes are only used to throw teddy bears and gift vouchers … but to save the lives of the youth in the mountains, they must have orders, and refuel, and then the sun sets so they don't take off," Mostafa El-Sayed, a photojournalist who travelled to Saint Catherine on Tuesday, wrote on his Facebook page.

El-Sayed was referring to the previous gestures undertaken by the army during the July uprising against ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, when military helicopters showered crowds with Egyptian flags and gifts. He was angry the helicopters didn't arrive earlier, which possibly could have saved the lives of the three hikers found dead on Monday in Gabal Al-Zaatar.

Massaad Abu Fagr, a Sinai-based political activist and writer, also took a swing at the army, criticising its statements that it had been impossible for helicopters to land where the survivors were initially based.

"Helicopters don't need parking garages to save people trapped on mountain tops. Paratroopers come off helicopters on ropes, pick up lost souls and return to the craft where paramedics are waiting at the door," he wrote on Tuesday.

Breakdown of events

According to preliminary information from Bedouin sources speaking to Ahram Online, the events unfolded as follows.

Eleven Egyptians arrived at Saint Catherine in South Sinai on Thursday for a hiking trip. On Saturday, eight of the 11 decided to go on a trek to Farsh Al-Romana in the Wadi Gebal valley, west of Saint Catherine.

At Farsh Al-Romana, a six-hour walk from Saint Catherine, Ramadan decided to explore the adjacent Gabal Al-Zaatar area by himself. He was followed later by Shalaby, El-Sebaei and Abel-Azim. It is not clear whether they were guided or not, but they weren't able to return to Farsh El-Romana, where the four others stayed and survived the low temperatures.

On Monday, the three friends back at Saint Catherine notified authorities about their friends – the weather conditions were poor and they were now worried.

The army then sent border-guard units, guided by Bedouins, to search for the four missing hikers. After a long search, they were able to locate the four survivors and the three who'd died. However, the army was unable to evacuate them right away – no landing space, poor visibility due to nightfall, plus the bad weather made an immediate helicopter rescue impossible.

Instead, the Bedouins and rescue team moved the survivors to an area up the valley towards Saint Catherine, where the helicopter was able to land the next day, Tuesday, and fly them to the hospital.

The survivors were in good physical condition but suffered from trauma, partly due to their being told of the death of the other three hikers.

Meanwhile, Ramadan was still missing and the bodies of his dead friends were still in Wadi Gebal.

The helicopter returned the next day, Wednesday, and along with the search team – part of which stayed with the bodies overnight – found Ramadan's body 2 km from Wadi Gebal. They moved him and the bodies of the three other dead hikers to the helicopter landing area, where they were then collected and returned to Cairo on Wednesday evening.

Incompetence

While many blamed the army for failing to immediately dispatch effective help that could have possibly saved the victims, Ahram Online learned from Bedouin sources that the Bedouins who led the group were unqualified to do so and thus responsible for the hikers getting lost.

One of the trip's organisers bypassed the two qualified guides at Saint Catherine and then struck a deal with a third party who lacked the experience to undertake such a hike.

The organiser thought the rate demanded by the first guides was too high and instead opted for the third party, who misguided the group, allowed it to get separated and then left all of them alone on Monday, making his way back to Saint Catherine by himself.

For its part, the Egyptian army issued a statement on Wednesday with a detailed timeline of events concerning its engagement with the matter. The statement said the army's inability to move the dead bodies was due to the time it took to refuel the helicopter on Tuesday after transferring the survivors, after which the sun had already set.

The army, however, did not explain the time difference between the police being notified and the helicopter being dispatched – a lengthy three hours that could have made a difference between life and death.

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