Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared Sunday a national day of mourning after dozens were killed and 150 injured at a religious bonfire festival.
Families have begun funerals for victims crushed to death at the festival as Mr Netanyahu described the tragedy as one of the country’s “worst disasters”.
Medical workers have identified 32 of the 45 victims before taking a break for the Sabbath, with 22 of those bodies released to families for burial.
Mr Netanyahu has ordered an investigation into the terrifying crush at the overcrowded event attended by ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Visiting the site, Mr Netanyahu announced Israel would hold a day of mourning on Sunday for “one of the worst disasters that Israel has experienced”.
It’s been estimated about 100,000 people had flocked to the Lag B’Omer festival, near Mount Meron tomb, considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and an annual pilgrimage site.
Held on the slopes of Mount Meron, in northern Israel, it was one of the largest gatherings in Israel since the pandemic and was held in defiance of health officials warning not to attend.
The venue was described as a series of open-air stages connected by paths and passageways and it’s understood the deadly stampede occurred along one of these tight passageways.
Witnesses described people becoming asphyxiated or being trampled while caught in a mass of humans trying to move through a walkway about 3 metres wide.
One festival goer named Zohar told Israel’s Channel 12 News that as people came to a stop in the tight section they started losing colour in their faces and falling over.
“Everyone was crammed on top of each other and no one understood why. I raised my head and saw policemen blocking the passageway. We shouted, ‘People are dying in there,'” he said.
“Then, bodies began falling at my feet. I tried to call for help, and slowly rescue forces arrived. There were some people who [rescuers] did not even try to revive. People were lying on my feet, shouting ‘Help me.'”
Another survivor, David, told Ynet news it was like being part of a human wave.
“Our bodies were swept along by themselves. People were thrown up in the air — others were crushed on the ground,” he said.
Medics described the worst scenes as they attempted to perform CPR on dozens of bodies gasping on the ground.
First responder Kalanit Taub, told CNN there were “nonstop people to care for.”
“I saw 20-plus CPRs ongoing at the same time. Anywhere you looked, you saw another person doing CPR.”
Most of the casualties, including children, were males because the incident happened in the men’s section of the gender-segregated festival.
Crushed to death
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) April 30, 2021
Videos posted on social media showed ultra-Orthodox men clambering desperately through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the tight passage.
People who stayed on the scene through the night questioned how the situation so quickly spiralled out of control, though there had been concern for years about safety risks at the annual event.
“There was some kind of mess, police, screaming, a big mess, and after half an hour it looked like a scene of a suicide bombing attack, numerous people coming out from there on stretchers,” said 19-year-old festival-goer Hayim Cohen.
“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,” 36-year-old pilgrim Shlomo Katz told Reuters.
An injured man lying on a hospital bed told reporters the crush began when a line of people in the front of the surging crowd simply collapsed.
“A pyramid of one on top of another was formed. People were piling up one on top of the other. I was in the second row. The people in the first row – I saw people die in front of my eyes,” he said.
People who stayed on the scene through the night questioned how the situation so quickly spiralled out of control, although there had been concern for years about safety risks at the annual event.
The Justice Ministry said investigators would look into whether there had been any police misconduct connected to the tragedy.
A police spokesman said on Friday 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.