Dozens crushed to death in crowd at Israeli religious festival
Dozens of people were crushed to death in a crowd at a religious bonfire festival in Israel on Friday, 30 April 2021, 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 second-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. Emergency services deployed six helicopters to evacuate the injured. Some of the injured have been transported by military helicopter to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, rescue workers said.
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.
Yehuda Gottleib, one of the first responders from United Hatzalah, said he saw “dozens of people fell on top of one another during the collapse”.“A large number of them were crushed and lost consciousness.”
Ambulance officials described the incident as a stampede and said 103 people had been injured, including dozens fatally. Channel 12 put the number of dead at 40. These included children, witnesses said.
“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.
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. Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, covered in foil blankets.
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’ busses 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 percent of the population fully vaccinated.