JERUSALEM - In one of the worst peacetime disasters in Israel’s history, at least 45 people reportedly died and more than 150 were injured in a stampede at a Jewish holy site in northern Israel. The stampede apparently began when a walkway collapsed, with tens of thousands of people at the site.
More than 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox, had gathered in the town of Meron for a massive bonfire lighting ceremony to mark the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer.
It was the largest public gathering in Israel since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted a few weeks ago as the number of cases plummeted.
Witnesses told media the stampede began around 1 a.m. Friday in a narrow passageway that was slippery from spilled grape juice and water. The passageway was known as a bottleneck at the site.
Recovering in a hospital, Avraham Leyva told Israel Television that there were a lot of people on top of him, and as others slipped, more and more people fell. He said he was on top of someone who wasn’t breathing. He said police came and began rescuing people but it took a long time.
The rescue operations took many hours. Social media was flooded with posts looking for people who were missing. Israeli police opened an investigation into the cause of the tragedy, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday would be a day of national mourning.
He said there were heartbreaking scenes of people who were crushed to death including children. He also praised the rescuers and said their fast work prevented a much larger disaster.
Israel’s president said his office had opened a call center to help families who were looking for their loved ones. He also lit 45 candles outside his residence, representing the number of those confirmed dead.
So many Israelis rushed to donate blood that blood banks told people to stop coming. Arab towns offered food and drink to the survivors of the tragedy.
Police officials had previously warned that the mass gatherings in Meron were dangerous. Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis come every year to the site, which is the burial place of the 2nd century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai.
Last year, police sealed off the site to prevent gatherings that could spread the coronavirus.