JERUSALEM (AP) – A stampede at a religious ceremony attended by tens of thousands of radical Orthodox Jews in northern Israel has killed at least 44 people and injured 150 early Friday, medical officials said. This is one of the worst civilian disasters in the country.
According to witnesses and video footage, the congestion began when a large number of people trying to leave the site came to a narrow tunnel-like path. At the end of the slippery path, people began to fall on top of each other as they descended the slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.
“A lot of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created,” one person was identified only by his first name, DVR, he told Israeli military radio. He described the terrifying scene as people fell down in the first row. He said he was in the next row.
“I felt like I was going to die,” he said.
The video footage showed a large number of people, most of them black Ultra Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. Haaretz quoted daily witnesses as saying that police barricades prevented people from leaving quickly.
The stampede occurred during Lock Palmer’s celebrations at Maron Mount, the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted almost all restrictions on the corona virus epidemic. Country cases have been on the decline since the launch of the world’s most successful vaccine campaign late last year.
Lock Palmer attracts tens of thousands of people each year, mostly to Orthodox Jews, to pay homage to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic buried there. Large crowds traditionally light fire, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.
This year, the media estimated the crowd at about 100,000.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the seal “a great tragedy” and said we all pray for the victims.
After the crowd, photos showed rows of bodies wrapped around the ground, with dozens of ambulances in place.
Eli Beer, director of the Hudsala Rescue Service, said he was horrified by how crowded the event was, adding that the site was equipped to handle a quarter of the number that were there. “More than 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he told the military radio station.
As of Friday morning, another ambulance service, Jaga, said the death toll had risen to 44. Spokeswoman Motti Putin said the families would be notified and the bodies would be taken to a single location for identification. He said he expects the bodies to be buried before the sunset of the Jewish Sabbath when the funeral will not take place.
The death toll was equal to the number of people killed in a wildfire in 2010, which is believed to be the worst civilian tragedy in the country’s history.
Jackie Heller, a spokeswoman for the Megan David Atom Rescue Service, said 150 people had been hospitalized and six were in critical condition.
“No one dreamed,” Heller told the station that something like this could happen. “In a moment, we went from a happy event to an enormous tragedy,” he said.
The Israeli military said it had sent doctors and search and rescue teams with helicopters.
Health officials had warned against holding such a large crowd.
But as the celebrations began, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yakov Shabdai and other high-ranking officials visited the event and met with police.
Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, wished the country a happy holiday and thanked the police for their hard work and dedication to “safeguarding the well-being and safety of many participants.”
Netanyahu is struggling to form a ruling coalition ahead of Tuesday’s deadline, and national tragedy is sure to complicate those efforts.