At least 44 people have died following a stampede at a religious bonfire festival in Israel on Friday, in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a “terrible disaster”.
Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews congregated at the Mount Meron tomb of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in north-east Israel, to celebrate the annual Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer.
Throngs of people gathered together to witness the ceremonial lighting of bonfires when, at about 3AM on Friday, the overcrowding triggered what emergency medical services described as a “stampede”. A preliminary police investigation revealed that some people had slipped on the stairs, creating a “human avalanche” that crushed some members of the crowd and asphyxiated others, according to Israeli news site Ynet.
Yossi Goldhirsh, who was at the scene with his children, told the publication that soon after the ceremonial fire was lit he could see “waves of people being run over and crushed.”
Israel’s military dispatched medical teams and an elite rescue unit to clear the area, evacuate casualties and provide treatment. Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency medical service, said it had evacuated 103 injured people to local hospitals, more than 20 of whom were in severe condition.
Witnesses claimed that many of the people who were being trampled in the incident went unnoticed until the public-address system sounded off and instructed everyone to disperse.
“We thought maybe there was a (bomb) alert over a suspicious package,” a pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV, as reported by Reuters. “No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness.”
The crowds had gathered at the Mount Meron tomb, considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world, in defiance of warnings by health officials about potential COVID-19 risks.
The Lag B’Omer event was the largest public gathering of people in Israel since the outbreak of the pandemic, according to the Times of Israel, with some 100,000 people estimated to be at the site by midnight on Thursday.
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