MOUNT MERON, Israel (NewsNation Now) — A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed at least 45 people and injured about 150 early Friday, medical officials said. It was one of the country’s deadliest civilian disasters.
The stampede began when large numbers of people thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage during the event, according to witnesses and video footage. People began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway, as they descended slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.
One of the injured, Avraham Leibe, told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that a crush of people trying to descend the mountain caused a “general bedlam” on a slippery metal slope followed by stairs. “Nobody managed to halt,” he said from a hospital bed. “I saw one after the other fall.”
Video footage showed large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. Initial reports and witnesses said police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.
The stampede occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron, the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.
Eli Beer, director of Hatzalah rescue service, said he was shocked by the size of the crowd at the Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mount Meron. Police were quoted as saying some 100,000 people were there.
He told Army Radio that there were four to five times the number of people that should have entered a location like this. “Close to 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he said.
Zaka spokesman Motti Bukchin said families were being notified and the bodies were being taken to a single location for identification. He said he expected the bodies to be buried before sundown of the Jewish Sabbath, when funerals do not take place.
Photos showed rows of wrapped bodies lying on the ground afterward, with dozens of ambulances at the site. The Haaretz daily quoted witnesses as saying police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.
Lag BaOmer draws tens of thousands of people, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, each year to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.
The ecstatic crowds packed the Mount Meron slope in defiance of COVID-19 warnings by health officials. Witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in a passageway, some going unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse.
“We thought maybe there was a (bomb) alert over a suspicious package. No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness,” a pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV.
“Rabbi Shimon used to say that he could absolve the world … If he didn’t manage to cancel this edict on the very day of his exaltation, then we need to do real soul-searching.”
A 24-year-old witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told the Army Radio station that “masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created.” He said a first row of people fell down, and then a second row, where he was standing, also began to fall down from the pressure of the stampede.
“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who briefly visited Mount Meron around midday Friday, said it was “one of the worst disasters that has befallen the state of Israel” and offered condolences to the families. He said Sunday would be a day of national mourning.
The Lag B’Omer event at Mount Meron was thought to be one of the largest gatherings of people – certainly in Israel and perhaps farther afield – since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.
As rescue workers tried to extricate the casualties, police shut down the site and ordered revellers out. The Transportation Ministry halted roadworks in the area to enable ambulances and pilgrims’ buses to move unhindered. Military helicopters ferried some casualties to hospitals.
The Mount Meron tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and it is an annual pilgrimage site.
Videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes as Ultra-Orthodox men clambered through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the crush. Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, covered in foil blankets.
Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions, but lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid COVID-19 vaccination program that has seen more than 50% of the population fully vaccinated.
Health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering.
But when the celebrations started, the Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yaakov Shabtai and other top officials visited the event and met with police, who had deployed 5,000 extra forces to maintain order.
Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked police for their hard work and dedication “for protecting the well-being and security for the many participants” as he wished the country a happy holiday.
Netanyahu is struggling to form a governing coalition ahead of a Tuesday deadline, and the national tragedy is sure to complicate those efforts.