'Immense tragedy': At least 44 dead, over 100 injured in stampede at religious gathering in Israel, medical officials say
A stampede at a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel killed at least 44 people and injured some 150 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters.
About 100,000 people were crowded by Mount Meron before the stampede Thursday night to celebrate the holiday of Lag b’Omer, the New York Times estimated.
A Jewish holiday popular with ultra-Orthodox Jews, it honors Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second century sage and mystic who is buried at the base of the mountain. The tomb is considered a holy site in Israel.
Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, said he was horrified by how crowded the event was, saying the site was equipped to handle perhaps a quarter of the number who were there. “Close to 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he told the Army radio station.
By Friday morning, Zaka, one of the country's ambulance service, said the death toll had risen to 44.
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.
Zaki Heller, spokesman for Magen David Adom, another rescue service, told the station “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.
United States National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan acknowledged the disaster on social media late Thurday.
"Our hearts go out to the people of Israel tonight following the terrible tragedy at Mount Meron," Sullivan said on Twitter. "We offer our condolences to the families and friends who lost loved ones in this disaster, and wish a full and swift recovery to those injured."
Magen David Adom said in another tweet that all the injuries happened in a stampede. Police sources told local media the stampede started after some attendees slipped on some steps, causing dozens more to fall, 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 festival of Lag BaOmer ends Friday evening. Thousands of more people had been expected to arrive at Mount Meron on Friday, reported the Times.
The gathering marked the first legal huge religious gathering since Israel lifted nearly all of its coronavirus pandemic restrictions, due to a largely successful vaccination campaign that saw cases drop.
Health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering, AP reported.
The Associated Press reported that the Israeli military dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist with a “mass casualty incident” in the area. It did not provide details on the nature of the disaster.
There were conflicting reports surrounding the incident. Videos circulating on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews crowded together in tight spaces before the incident, and local media shared photos of rows of bodies.
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 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.
This isn't the first time that a religious gathering has posed such a risk.
At least 717 people were killed and more than 850 injured in a stampede in 2015 outside Mecca during the annual hajj pilgrimage, Saudi officials said.
And at least 115 people were crushed to death or died in the river below a Hindu temple during a festival in India in 2013, fearing 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 last year's Lag BaOmer celebration after a crowd gathered despite coronavirus restrictions.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel stampede disaster: At least 44 dead at religious gathering