Dozens of people were crushed to death in a crowd at a religious bonfire festival in Israel on Friday, medics said, in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a “heavy disaster”.
The crush occurred as tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged to the Galilee tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual Lag B’Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.
Witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in a tightly packed passageway, some going unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse, as crowds packed the Mount Meron slope in defiance of COVID-19 warnings.
Helicopters had ferried injured people to hospitals in northern Israel, the Magen David Adom (MDA) ambulance service said. The Israeli military said search and rescue troops and medical teams were scrambled.
“We were standing and waiting for our friends, we were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids,” Shlomo Katz, 36, told Reuters.
He then saw ambulances come out “one after the other” and realised something had gone badly wrong, “and we just went to the side as the ambulances were driving in and out and we waited until we were able to slowly get out.”
The site is mostly gender-segregated and bystander video suggested the crush took place in one of the men’s sections.
One pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV: “We thought maybe there was a (bomb) alert over a suspicious package. No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness.”
He added: “Rabbi Shimon used to say that he could absolve the world … If he didn’t manage to cancel this edict on the very day of his exaltation, then we need to do real soul-searching.”
With the site cleared, rescue workers collapsed against railings, some weeping as their colleagues comforted them, according to video distributed by medical responders.
As rescue workers tried to extricate the casualties, police shut down the site and ordered revellers out. The Transportation Ministry halted roadworks in the area to enable ambulances and pilgrims’ buses to move unhindered. Military helicopters ferried some casualties to hospitals.
The Mount Meron tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and it is an annual pilgrimage site. The event was thought to be one of the largest gatherings of people in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.
Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions, but lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid COVID-19 vaccination programme that has seen more than 54% of the population fully vaccinated.