Sebastian Scheiner / AP
JERUSALEM – At least 45 people were killed and another 150 injured in a crush during a religious holiday of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel, where tens of thousands of faithful gathered in one of the largest events in the country since the start of the pandemic.
The chaos on Mount Meron began early Friday at the Lag BaOmer festival, which features bonfires and dancing around the Galilee tomb of a 2nd-century rabbi.
According to witnesses, around 1 a.m. local time, in an area of the complex where the Hassidic ultra-Orthodox community of Toldot Aharon was celebrating its festivities, participants were pushing through a slippery staircase. Suddenly, a line of people fell to the ground, piling up on top of each other.
נורא לראות את הצפיפות שהיתה במעבר הצר, ואת הדוחק העצום שהוביל בסוף לאסון הקשה והמחריד. pic.twitter.com/1RE7FggFXt
– ישראל כהן (@ Israelcohen911) April 29, 2021
Witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in the crowded corridor. The stampede occurred in the gender-segregated men’s section of the festival, Reuters reported, citing doctors, who said the victims included children.
Officials had limited the number of bonfires at the site this year in an effort to control crowds due to concerns over COVID-19.
“There haven’t been many bonfires this year, and I think that’s why they all came together,” said a young survivor, identified as Avraham, speaking on Israeli Channel 12 television from his hospital bed.
Hezi Levi, the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Health, told NPR he was concerned about a potential virus outbreak due to the large crowd that was gathering.
“I expressed my concern yesterday to bring together hundreds of thousands of people who will come to celebrate Lag Baomer, and we talked about a scenario that could be very dangerous as far as the crown is concerned,” Levi said. “We are not sure that everyone is vaccinated. We know that children under 16 are not vaccinated. And it is very dangerous to transfer the disease.”
Despite warnings from Israeli health officials, local media estimated the crowd at this year’s festival at around 100,000.
Another witness told the Haaretz newspaper that “It happened in a split second; people fell, trampling each other. It was a disaster.”
Rescue officials calculated the death toll at 45. Zaki Heller, a spokesman for Rescue Service Magen David Adom, said 150 people were injured in the stampede, six of them in critical condition.
Authorities struggled to identify the dead, asking families to take medical records and photographs of their relatives to Israel’s central morgue.
Relatives continued to search for their missing loved ones on Friday morning, after buses evacuated crowds from the site overnight and mobile phone service collapsed in the area. The Israelis have posted photos of their relatives and the Israeli president’s office has set up an emergency phone line to help families search for missing relatives.
The families of those who died in the stampede are rushing to bury the dead before sunset on Friday, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath when burials do not take place.
Ronen Zvulun / POOL / AFP via Getty Images
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who briefly visited Mount Meron on Friday around noon, called the tragedy “one of the worst disasters to hit the state of Israel”. He said Sunday would be a day of national mourning.
The death toll is similar to the number of people killed in a 2010 bushfire, which is considered Israel’s deadliest civil tragedy, according to the Associated Press.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said Israel received an outpouring of condolences from Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and representatives from around to a dozen other countries, including the Arab kingdom of the Gulf of Bahrain, which last year established diplomatic relations with Israel.
An act of kindness attracted the attention of local media: a Palestinian Arab city in the area, despite the Muslim fast for Ramadan, set up food and drinks for Jewish participants who evacuated the pilgrimage site.
Scott Neuman of NPR contributed to this report.