Jerusalem, Apr 30 (PTI) At least 45 people were killed and over 150 others injured after a stampede broke out at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, medical officials said on Friday, in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a 'terrible disaster' and promised a thorough probe into the country's worst peacetime tragedy.
The mass gathering was organised to celebrate the Lag B'Omer, an annual religious holiday marked with all-night bonfires, prayer and dancing, at Mount Meron. The town is the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century sage, and is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world.
Tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews participated in the tragic event on Thursday night at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, making it the largest event held in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic broke out last year.
A preliminary police investigation revealed that some of the attendees slipped on the stairs, creating a 'human avalanche' that crushed members of the crowd.
Prime Minister Netanyahu called the incident “a terrible disaster,” promised a thorough investigation, and said that Sunday would be declared a day of national mourning.
'We will carry out a thorough, serious and in-depth investigation in order to ensure that such a disaster does not recur. I would like to declare Sunday as a day of national mourning. Let us all join in the grief of the families and pray for the wellbeing of the injured,' he tweeted.
'I must also point out that there was quick rescue work here by the police, the rescue and security forces, and we are profoundly grateful to them; they prevented a far worse disaster,' he said after visiting the site.
President of Israel Reuven Rivlin lit 45 memorial candles at the President’s Residence in memory of the victims. 'In memory of the 45 people who lost their lives in the Har Meron disaster. May their memories be a blessing,' he wrote in a tweet.
Israel recently eased mask-wearing requirements in open areas and other restrictions after the success of a massive vaccination drive that significantly brought down coronavirus-related cases.
The resulting 'normalcy', with limitations, saw rejoicing crowds across Israel on Thursday evening with youngsters, especially school children, coming out in large numbers in open spaces putting bonfires that accompanied the Lag BaOmer festivities.
Firefighters worked to free the trapped, supported by Israeli Air Force helicopters and rescue services. Police were trying to clear the tens of thousands who attended the event from the area.
At around midnight on Thursday, organisers had estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site, with an additional 100,000 expected to arrive by Friday morning, local media reported.
A police official said that dozens of participants in a concert had “slipped,” falling on those below them while walking along a slippery walkway and causing a crushing domino effect. 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, as police and paramedics tried to reach the wounded.
Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, covered in foil blankets. Health Ministry officials had urged Israelis not to travel to Mount Meron, saying the festivities could lead to mass coronavirus contagion, The Times of Israel reported.
Yet there was significant pressure on authorities to allow it to go ahead -- especially as it was cancelled last year. Since the site was so densely populated, search and rescue authorities say they struggled to evacuate trapped people.
'It happened in a split second; people just fell, trampling each other. It was a disaster,' a witness told the newspaper. 'This is one of the worst tragedies that I have ever experienced. I have not seen anything like this since I entered into the field of emergency medicine back in 2000,' said Lazar Hyman, vice president of the volunteer-based emergency organisation United Hatzalah, who was at the scene.
Panic and fear engulfed the survivors as many were trapped next to the dead, struggling to breathe and waiting for rescue. Footage from the walkway showed shoes, hats, baby strollers, smashed eyeglasses and water bottles strewn on the ground. Metal railings were torn from the ground.
“We were going in to see the bonfire lighting, suddenly there was a wave coming out. Our bodies were swept along by themselves. People were thrown up in the air, others were crushed on the ground,” the report quoted David, a survivor, as saying.
“It felt like an eternity, the dead were all around us,” he said. “People fell from above and crushed each other, they squashed each other. people just fell, I will never forget the banging sounds, people flying all over,” a survivor identified as Zohar said.
Eli Beer, head of the Hatzalah rescue services organisation told Army Radio that there were a number of children among the victims. Some 5,000 police officers were said to have been deployed at the event.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of Jews -- many of them ultra-Orthodox -- flock to Bar Yochai's tomb site on Mount Meron, which lies in the Upper Galilee region of northern Israel, about 40 kilometres northeast of the city of Haifa.
The event is believed to be the worst peacetime tragedy in modern Israeli history, with a death toll higher than the 44 who lost their lives in the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire. PTI HM NSA AKJ MRJ MRJ