The toll from the devastating stampede at a religious bonfire festival in Israel has risen to at least 44 as traumatised witnesses reported people being asphyxiated or trampled in a tightly packed passageway.
The crush occurred early on Friday as tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged to the Galilee tomb of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual Lag B’Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.
Initial reports said a section of stadium seating had collapsed at the event in Mount Meron in the Galilee. But officials later said it appeared there had been a stampede, that killed scores and injured up to 150 more, some of them children.
Witnesses said some of the dead and injured went unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse, as up to 30,000 people packed the Mount Meron slope in defiance of COVID-19 warnings.
Helicopters had ferried injured people to hospitals in northern Israel, the Magen David Adom (MDA) ambulance service said.
“We have 38 dead at the scene but there are more at the hospital,” an MDA spokesman said, while a source at the Ziv Medical Centre told AFP they had received at least six dead.
The Israeli military said search and rescue troops and medical teams were scrambled.
“We were standing and waiting for our friends, we were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids,” Shlomo Katz, 36, told Reuters.
He then saw ambulances come out “one after the other” and realised something had gone badly wrong.
“[We] just went to the side as the ambulances were driving in and out and we waited until we were able to slowly get out”.
The site is mostly gender-segregated and bystander video suggested the crush occurred in one of the men’s sections.
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.
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.”
With the site cleared, rescue workers collapsed against railings, some weeping as their colleagues comforted them, according to video distributed by medical responders.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “heavy disaster”, adding on Twitter: “We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties.”
As rescue workers tried to extricate the casualties, police shut the site and ordered revellers out. The Transportation Ministry halted roadworks in the area to enable ambulances and pilgrims’ buses to move unhindered.
The Mount Meron tomb is considered one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and it is an annual pilgrimage site. The event was thought to be one of the largest gatherings of people in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.
Authorities had reportedly given permission for 10,000 people to gather, but organisers said more than 650 buses had been chartered from across Israel, bring 30,000 pilgrims in all.
Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned in 2020 due to coronavirus restrictions. Israel eased lockdown measures this year as it pushed ahead with a vaccination program that has so far covered more than half of the population.