Dozens of people were killed in a crowd at a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel attended by tens of thousands of people, in one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters.
A rescue service spokesman said 28 people were killed in the Mount Meron crowd early Friday, according to Reuters. Magen David Adom’s ambulance service said 103 people had been injured, including dozens who died. Channel 12 TV put the death toll at 38.
The disaster took place when tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews flocked to the grave in Galilee of 2nd-century wise Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual Lag B’Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dancing.
Ecstatic crowds filled the slope of Mount Meron in defiance of Covid-19 warnings from health officials. Witnesses said people were suffocated or trampled in a passage, some going unnoticed until the public address system sounded a call to disperse.
Magen David Adom posted the death toll on Twitter, adding that “MDA is fighting for the lives of dozens of injured and will not surrender until the last victim is evacuated.”
The Jerusalem Post He said six helicopters were called to the scene to evacuate the wounded. The Israeli army said it had dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to help with a “mass casualty incident” in the area.
Israeli media published an image of a row of bodies covered in plastic bags on the ground and videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes. They showed ultra-Orthodox men climbing through holes in sheets of broken corrugated iron to escape the crush, while police and paramedics tried to reach the wounded.
In one video, a crowd of men could be seen being herded across a narrow walkway, with some men falling down and one man appearing to wave for help. Another video showed a crush on a barricade.
Yehuda Gottleib, one of United Hatzalah’s first responders, said he saw “dozens of people fall on top of each other during the collapse … A large number of them were crushed and lost consciousness.”
A witness told Haaretz: “It happened in a fraction of a second; people just fell, trampling each other. It was a disaster. “
One person at the scene, named only as Avi, told the newspaper: “I had just sat down to eat when I heard the screams; we rushed to help, and then we saw the bodies. At the beginning it was around 10. Now, there are many more. “
“I thought he was going to die,” a witness told Maariv newspaper. “I saw dead people next to me.”
Witnesses said they realized that people had been suffocated or trampled when an organizer called through a megaphone for the crowd to disperse.
“We thought maybe there was a [bomb] alert about a suspicious package. Nobody imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing turned into mourning, a great light turned into deep darkness, ”said a pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak to Channel 12 TV.
News websites had previously reported that a grandstand collapsed, but the rescue service said all the injuries occurred in a crowd.
The event appeared to be one of the worst peacetime tragedies in Israel’s history.
“A serious disaster on Mount Meron,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response to the incident. “We all pray for the recovery of the injured. I ask to strengthen the rescue forces operating in the area. “
“With great anxiety I follow Meron’s reports and pray for the healing of the wounded,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tweeted.
Dov Maisel, vice president of operations for United Hatzalah, a voluntary emergency services organization, described the scene as “one of Israel’s worst disasters.” People had been “literally crushed to death”, he said in a video posted on Twitter.
He said the organization’s volunteers had seen “very, very difficult visions. Places we have not seen here in Israel since the worst days of terrorist rage in the early 2000s. I am at a loss for words. Honestly, I have no words ”.
The event was the first major religious gathering of its kind to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases drop since it launched one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.
Authorities had authorized 10,000 people to gather at the grave site, but organizers said more than 650 buses had been chartered from across the country, taking 30,000 pilgrims to Meron.
Around 5,000 police officers had been deployed to secure the event, the largest public gathering in the country during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, the area has been closed, and rescuers and security forces tried to clear the area.
This is a breaking story, check back for updates …