JERUSALEM: A stampede at a Jewish pilgrimage site in Galilee in northern Israel killed at least 44 people on Friday (Apr 30), the Magen David Adom (MDA) rescue service and a hospital source told AFP.
“We have 38 dead at the scene but there are more at the hospital,” an MDA spokesman said, while a source at the Ziv Medical Center told AFP they had received at least six dead.
The crush occurred at Meron, at the tomb of 2nd century Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews flock to mark annual Lag B'Omer commemorations that include a bonfire all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.
Witnesses said people were crushed to death in a densely packed passageway, some going unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse as crowds thronged the Mount Meron slope in defiance of COVID-19 warnings.
The pilgrimage was the largest public gathering since the pandemic began, with reports that there were three times more people there than allowed.
Authorities had allowed 10,000 people to gather at the site, but organisers said more than 650 buses had been chartered from across the country, bringing 30,000 pilgrims to Meron. Around 5,000 police had been deployed to secure the event.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the stampede a "heavy disaster", adding on Twitter: "We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties."
The MDA said it would "fight for the lives of dozens wounded, and will not give up until the last victim is evacuated".
Helicopters had ferried the injured to hospitals in northern Israel, the MDA’s ambulance service said. The Israeli military’s search and rescue and medical teams were scrambled.
"The forces are assisting in the evacuation of injured and killed civilians and providing medical treatment at the scene," the military said.
“ONE OF THE WORST TRAGEDIES THAT I HAVE EVER EXPERIENCED”
"We were standing and waiting for our friends, we were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids," Shlomo Katz, 36, told Reuters.
He then saw ambulances come out "one after the other" and realised something had gone badly wrong, "and we just went to the side as the ambulances were driving in and out and we waited until we were able to slowly get out”.
The site is mostly gender-segregated and bystander video suggested the crush took place in one of the men's sections.
Videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes as 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.
One pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV: "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."
He added: "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."
Some survivors had lit candles for the victims while other prayed at a nearby wall. Israeli media published an image of a row of bodies covered in plastic bags on the ground.
"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".
Opposition leader Yair Lapid lamented the "terrible disaster", and described it as a "sad" night for the country.
With the site cleared, rescue workers collapsed against railings, some weeping as their colleagues comforted them, according to video distributed by medical responders.
Initial reports indicated that the chaos erupted when a section of stadium seating collapsed, but rescue workers later linked the casualties to a stampede.
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.
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 programme that has seen more than 54 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.