JERUSALEM (AP) — A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed at least 44 people and injured about 150 early Friday, medical officials said. It was one of the country’s deadliest civilian disasters.
The stampede began when large numbers of people trying to exit the site thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage, according to witnesses and video footage. People began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway, as they descended slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.
“Masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created,” a man identified only by his first name Dvir, told Israel Army Radio. He described a terrifying sight as the first row of people fell down. He said he was in the next row of people that tripped.
“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.
Video footage showed large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. The Haaretz daily quoted witnesses as saying police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.
The stampede occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron, the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.
Lag BaOmer draws tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, each year to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.
This year, media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the stampede a “great tragedy” and said everyone was praying for the victims.
After the stampede, photos showed rows of wrapped bodies lying on the ground, with dozens of ambulances at the site.
Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, said he was horrified by how crowded the event was, saying the site was equipped to handle perhaps a quarter of the number who were there. “Close to 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he told the Army radio station.
By Friday morning, Zaka, another ambulance service, said the death toll had risen to 44. Spokesman Motti Bukchin said families were being notified and the bodies were being taken to a single location for identification. He said he expected the bodies to be buried before sundown of the Jewish Sabbath, when funerals do not take place.
The death toll was on par with the number of people killed in a 2010 forest fire, which is believed to be the deadliest civilian tragedy in the country’s history.
Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalized, with six in critical condition.
Heller told the station “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.
The Israeli military said it had dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist.
Health authorities had warned against holding such a large gathering.
But when the celebrations started, the Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yaakov Shabtai and other top officials visited the event and met with police, who had deployed 5,000 extra forces to maintain order.
Before the stampede, Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked police for their hard work and dedication “for protecting the well-being and security for the many participants” as he wished the country a happy holiday.
Netanyahu is struggling to form a governing coalition ahead of a Tuesday deadline, and the national tragedy is sure to complicate those efforts.