Israel: Dozens killed in crush at Lag B'Omer religious festival
At least 45 people have been crushed to death at an overcrowded religious bonfire festival in northern Israel, in a disaster that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited the site on Friday morning, described as "one of the worst that the State of Israel has ever experienced".
The crush occurred overnight as tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged to the Galilee tomb of 2nd century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual Lag B'Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.
Witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in a tightly packed passageway, some going unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse, as crowds packed the Mount Meron slope in defiance of Covid-19 warnings.
Helicopters ferried injured people to hospitals and the military said search-and-rescue troops were scrambled.
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
The crush was caused after some revellers slipped on steps, causing dozens more people to fall over, police sources told Haaretz, who said more than 150 people had been injured.
Six of the injured are in critical condition and 18 are in serious condition, the Israeli newspaper quoted emergency response teams as saying.
Casualties included children, witnesses said. The site is mostly gender-segregated and bystander video suggested the crush took place at one of the men's sections.
“The Mount Meron disaster is one of the worst that the State of Israel has ever experienced. We are pained over those who have died," said Netanyahu.
"Our hearts are with the families as well as with the injured, whom we wish a full recovery. There have been heartbreaking scenes here, people who were crushed to death, including children.
"A large portion of the dead have still not been identified, and I would ask that rumours not be spread on social media, because this is heartbreaking for the families. Let the authorities do their job,” he said.
There had been concern for years about the safety risks at the event and religious leaders have called for an investigation.
The Justice Ministry said investigators would look into whether there had been any police misconduct connected to the incident.
“We will prepare for a thorough, serious and in-depth investigation to ensure that such a disaster is not repeated," added Netanyahu.
The prime minister said Israel would hold a day of national mourning on Sunday.
'We thought maybe there was a [bomb] alert'
"We were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from [ambulance service] MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids," Shlomo Katz, 36, told Reuters. He then saw ambulances come out "one after the other".
Videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes as ultra-Orthodox 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.
A police spokesman said overall capacity at Mount Meron was similar to previous years but that this time bonfire areas were partitioned-off as a Covid-19 precaution. That may have created unexpected choke-points on foot traffic, Israeli media said.
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."
"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."
With the site cleared, rescue workers collapsed against railings, some weeping as their colleagues comforted them, Reuters reported.
'Full and swift recovery'
The White House and European Union offered condolences.
Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to US President Joe Biden, wished a "full and swift recovery to those injured".
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 scores of ambulances and pilgrims' buses to move unhindered.
The Mount Meron tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and is an annual pilgrimage location.
The event was one of the largest gatherings in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.
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 percent of the population fully vaccinated.