A massive stampede at a densely packed Jewish pilgrimage site killed at least 44 people in northern Israel on Friday, blackening the country’s largest COVID-19-era gathering.
The nighttime disaster struck in Meron at the site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews flock to mark the Lag BaOmer holiday.
Closed last year due to coronavirus restrictions, this year’s pilgrimage was expected to be a celebratory event in a nation that has largely re-opened thanks to a successful vaccination effort.
It had been “a tragic night,” Shimon Lavi, northern Israel’s police commander, told AFP, adding his officers did all they could to save lives, helping to ferry the injured to hospital.
The pilgrimage was the largest public gathering since the pandemic broke out, with reports of three times more participants, including children, than authorised by police.
Initial reports indicated the carnage began when a section of stadium seating collapsed but rescue workers later linked the casualties to a stampede.
A spokesman for the Magen David Adom, Israel’s rescue service, told AFP “there were 38 dead at the scene but there were more at the hospital.”
A source at the northern Ziv hospital, one of several receiving casualties, told AFP it had recorded at least six deaths, taking the overall toll to 44.
The rescue service said it was treating 150 injured, six of them in serious condition.
‘They crushed each other’
“It was chaos as people tried to save themselves but they crushed each other,” Dov Maisel of the United Hatzala rescue services told army radio.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “heavy disaster” and said he was praying for the injured.
“The whole of Israel is praying for the recovery of the survivors,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid.
The army and emergency services deployed helicopters to evacuate the wounded.
Scenes from Meron hours after the accident showed an ultra-Orthodox Jewish crowd in distress, with debris scattered across the ground.
Some survivors had lit candles for the victims while others prayed nearby. Israeli media published an image of a row of bodies covered in plastic bags on the ground.
“This is one of the worst tragedies that I have ever experienced,” said Lazar Hyman of the United Hatzalah volunteer rescue service, who was at the scene.
“I have not seen anything like this since I entered into the field of emergency medicine,” he added.
Yehuda Gottleib, one of the first responders from United Hatzalah, said he saw “dozens of people fall on top of one another during the collapse”.
“A large number of them were crushed and lost consciousness.”
Israel has fully vaccinated more than half of its 9.3 million population against the coronavirus, but restrictions on massive public gatherings remain in place to stem the spread of the virus.
Authorities had authorised 10,000 people to gather at the site of the tomb but organisers said more than 650 buses had been chartered from across Israel, bringing 30,000 pilgrims to Meron.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known in Israel as haredim, have throughout the pandemic shown resistance towards health and safety measures mandated by the government.
Around 5,000 police had been deployed to secure the event.
After the stampede, police closed access to the area to prevent a crowd from building further, while rescue workers and security forces worked to clear the area and identify the victims.