A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel has killed at least 44 people and injured about 150, medical officials said.
One of the country’s deadliest civilian disasters began when large numbers of people thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage during the event, 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.
Avraham Leibe told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that a crush of people trying to descend the mountain caused “general bedlam” on a slippery metal slope followed by stairs. “Nobody managed to halt,” he said from a hospital bed. “I saw one after the other fall.”
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 prevented people from exiting quickly.
The stampede occurred during 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 virus cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.
Lag BaOmer draws tens of thousands of people each year to honour Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second 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.
By mid-morning on Friday, efforts were still under way to identify victims and connect families with missing relatives. In the night from Thursday to Friday, mobile phone coverage around Mount Meron had collapsed for hours and emergency hotlines were overwhelmed with calls.
In a race against time, funerals need to be held before sundown on Friday, the start of the Jewish Sabbath when burials do not take place.
In all, 44 people were killed, according to the ZAKA ambulance service. The death toll was on par with the number 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 admitted to hospital, with six in critical condition.
He told Israel Army Radio that “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 Justice Ministry said the police’s internal investigations department is launching a probe into possible criminal misconduct by officers.