In what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a “heavy tragedy,” at least 44 people were crushed to death at an overcrowded religious bonfire festival in Israel on Friday. A massive stampede at a heavily crowded Jewish pilgrimage site in northern Israel killed 44 people, prompting emergency workers to hurry to clear the area and evacuate the critically injured.
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews congregated to the tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shim Bar Yochai in Galilee for the annual Lag B’Omer commemorations, including all prayer, religious songs, and dance.
Initially, rescue workers said that chaos broke out when a part of stadium seating collapsed, but later updated the statement to state that the deaths were caused by a stampede.
As crowds lined the Mount Meron slope in violation of COVID-19 warnings, witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in a tightly packed passageway, some going unnoticed before the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse.
“A number of Israeli Air Force helicopters with medical teams… are assisting in the mass casualty incident in Mount Meron,” the army said.
“The forces are assisting in the evacuation of injured and killed civilians and providing medical treatment at the scene,” it added.
“This is one of the worst tragedies that I have ever experienced,” said Lazar Hyman of the United Hatzalah volunteer rescue service, who was at the scene.
“I have not seen anything like this since I entered into the field of emergency medicine,” he added.
Yehuda Gottleib, one of the first responders from United Hatzalah, said he saw “dozens of people fall on top of one another during the collapse”.
“A large number of them were crushed and lost consciousness.”
Ultra-Orthodox men clambered through gaps in ripped corrugated iron sheets to escape the crush, according to videos shared on social media. Inside a corridor, bodies lie on stretchers, wrapped in foil blankets.
Authorities had allowed 10,000 people to gather at the tomb site, but organizers said more than 650 buses from across the country had been chartered to carry 30,000 pilgrims to Meron.
Police shut down the site and ordered crowds out while emergency personnel attempted to extricate the victims. The Ministry of Transportation halted roadworks in the region to enable ambulances and pilgrim buses to pass through unhindered.
The event was guarded by 5,000 police officers. Since then, the area has been closed, with emergency workers and security forces working to clear it.