At least 44 people were killed and about 150 others injured in a rush on a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel early Friday, medical officials said in one of the country’s deadliest civil disasters.
Approximately 100,000 people were overcrowded from Mount Meron before the Thursday night rush to mark the holiday of Lag b’Omer, the New York Times estimated.
It is a Jewish holiday popular with ultra-Orthodox Jews and honors Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic buried at the foot of the mountain. The grave is considered a holy place in Israel.
Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah ambulance service, said he was appalled at how crowded the event was and said the construction site was equipped for about a quarter of the workers there. “Almost 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he told the army radio station.
On Friday morning, Zaka, one of the country’s emergency services, said the death toll had risen to 44.
Spokesman Motti Bukchin said the families would be notified and the bodies would be moved to a single location for identification. He said he expected the bodies to be buried before sunset on the Jewish Sabbath if funerals were not held.
Zaki Heller, spokesman for Magen David Adom, another ambulance service, told the station that “no one has ever dreamed” that something like this could happen. “In a moment we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.
United States National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan confirmed the disaster on social media late Thursday.
“Our hearts go to the people of Israel tonight after the terrible tragedy on Mount Meron,” said Sullivan said on twitter. “We extend our condolences to the families and friends who lost their loved ones in this disaster and wish those injured a full and speedy recovery.”
Magen David Adom said in another tweet that all injuries happened in one rush. Police sources told local media that the onslaught began after some participants slipped on some stairs and dozens more fell. reported BBC.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “great tragedy” and said everyone was praying for the victims, according to The Associated Press.
The Lag BaOmer festival ends on Friday evening. Thousands more people were due to arrive at Mount Meron on Friday, the Times reported.
The gathering was the first legal major religious gathering since Israel lifted almost all of its restrictions on coronavirus pandemics due to a largely successful vaccination campaign that saw cases decline.
The health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering, reported AP.
The Associated Press reported that the Israeli military dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist in a “mass accident” in the area. No details of the nature of the disaster were given.
There have been conflicting reports of the incident. Videos circulated on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews huddled together in a confined space prior to the incident, and local media shared photos of body rows.
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 the first row of people fell and then a second row he was standing in fell from the pressure of the stampede.
“I felt like I was going to die,” he said.
This is not the first time a religious congregation has presented such a risk.
At least 717 people were killed and more than 850 injured in a rush outside Mecca in 2015 during the annual Hajj pilgrimageSaid Saudi officials.
At least 115 people were crushed to death or died in the river below a Hindu temple during a festival in India in 2013for fear that a bridge would collapse. Two years later, at least 27 people were killed during a Hindu religious bathing festival in the country.
Israeli police arrested over 300 people at the Lag BaOmer celebration last year after a crowd gathered despite coronavirus restrictions.
Contributor: The Associated Press