JERUSALEM – An early Friday rush to a religious celebration on the mountainside in Israel attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews killed at least 44 people and injured numerous others.
It is estimated that around 100,000 people were crowded together late Thursday to celebrate a public holiday on Mount Meron in northern Israel, despite authorities warning of the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
The deadly rush began around 1:00 a.m. on Friday when the celebrants poured out of part of a site where celebrations were taking place. The death toll of 44, later released by the Ministry of Health, made it one of the worst civilian disasters in Israeli history.
Magen David Adom, the national ambulance service, said early Friday that it had treated 150 injured people. A video was posted on Twitter showing a fleet of ambulances, their red sirens flashing, waiting to evacuate the wounded.
“A terrible disaster,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor to President Biden, and Emanuele Giaufret, Ambassador of the European Union, sent their condolences to the families of the victims on Twitter.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews traditionally gather on Mount Meron to dance lag b’Omer during the holidays and to make a campfire for the grave of a prominent rabbi from ancient times. For years, critics have warned that the site’s inconsistent infrastructure cannot safely handle large crowds.
A video reportedly recorded shortly before the rush on Friday showed a crowd of people partying ecstatically and moving in unison with the music.
The early reports of what led to the onslaught varied.
Initial reports showed that a grandstand had collapsed. But when details emerged, it appeared that the crush had occurred after the celebrants slid down stone stairs that led into a narrow, metal-floored slope, triggering what the news site Ynet referred to as a “human avalanche”.
One of the injured, Chaim Vertheimer, said the slope had become slippery from spilled water and grape juice.
“For some reason there was sudden pressure at this point and people stopped, but more and more people came down,” Vertheimer told Ynet, speaking from his hospital bed in the holy city of Safed. “People weren’t breathing. I remember hundreds of people yelling, “I can’t breathe.”
Some rescue workers attributed the tragedy to the sheer volume of people who had gathered at Mount Meron. Television images of the scene showed shoes, hats, plastic bottles and other debris littering the passage after the evacuation. A metal railing that was supposed to help people stabilize on the slippery slope had collapsed.
The area around the rabbi’s tomb had been divided into separate sections to contain and control the crowd. As the death toll rose on Friday morning, questions arose about poor planning and possible negligence.
Footage captured during the disaster showed police officers trying to prevent people from fleeing the scene. This could be because the officers did not immediately see the extent of the danger or because they wanted to prevent the rush from reaching other areas of the site.
TV pictures also showed a side door in the evacuated passage that was locked.
Amir Ohana, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party’s Public Security Minister who oversees the police, had attended the event earlier Thursday evening. After the rush, he wrote on Twitter that the police chief was on his way to the scene.
Eli Levy, a police spokesman, said an investigation was ongoing but it was too early to assign blame or speak of negligence. He also cautioned against drawing conclusions from isolated video clips. Mr Levy added that despite being asked to evacuate the mountain, some celebrities refused to leave the mountain or tried to find their way back.
On the Thursday before the rush, Israeli police said they had arrested two people for disrupting officials’ efforts to maintain order on the site. But the crowd was so big that people couldn’t follow coronavirus restrictions, police said.
However it unfolded when the rush was over A scene of joy had turned into a scene of horror.
An eyewitness compared it to a war zone and told Channel 12 TV that he saw the bodies of two dead children. Pictures from the disaster scene showed bodies on stretchers covered with foil blankets.
The aftermath of the disaster was in part chaotic as the area’s cellular network collapsed and parents desperately looked for their children.
Amid the chaos, as medics tried to reach out to the wounded, prominent Israeli rabbis stayed on stage and tried to restore calm by reading psalms for the wounded.
The annual meeting on Mount Meron in Galilee takes place near the mystical city of Safed. According to Jewish tradition, the Lag b’Omer holiday is associated with the revolt of the Bar Kokhba against the Romans in the first century AD
Every year, many ultra-Orthodox and traditional Jews make pilgrimages to the mountain for festive days. They light campfires around the grave site of a second-century sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in the hope that they will receive his blessing on the anniversary of his death.
The pilgrimage took place this year despite Israeli health officials warning that it could be a Covid-19 superspreader event. This appears to have happened in India this month when a large Hindu celebration was allowed to take place.
Last year, Israeli authorities arrested over 300 people celebrating lag b’Omer after large crowds gathered and ignored police checkpoints on the streets despite the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus. Some reportedly threw stones and other objects at police officers who were trying to control the crowd.
According to a New York Times database, about 56 percent of the Israeli population had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by Thursday, and the country’s rapid vaccination campaign and falling infection rates have allowed it to take quick steps back towards normal. Earlier this month, Israel lifted its external mask mandate and fully reopened schools for the first time since September.
Restrictions still exist, however, and Thursday’s Mount Meron gathering, though smaller than similar in recent years, has been described as the largest in Israel since the pandemic began. Buses were still going up the mountain when the deadly rush began, and thousands more were expected on Friday.
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, Eric Nagourney from New York and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.
Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed to reporting from Jerusalem.