The engineer who had certified safety at Mount Meron, where 45 people were killed in a stampede last week, warned that the site's emergency exit had been narrowed, creating the risk of “a bottleneck,” according to documents disclosed Tuesday by Channel 12 News.
“In light of the size of the crowd expected, all of the emergency exits must remain open,” the engineer stated in a document that he issued three days prior to the massive Lag Ba’omer event.
He said the emergency exit was narrowed by the placement of a moveable structure and the construction of a balcony.
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The disaster occurred after a crowd that had attended a bonfire lighting at a portion of the site occupied by the Toldos Aharon ultra-Orthodox sect began leaving via a stairway that led to a sloped metal ramp. It is thought that the path, which led to another stairway, became slippery and that as people in the dense crowd lost their footing, they began falling on top of one another, leading to the 45 deaths and injuring some 150 others.
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The approved plan limited the crowd at the Toldos Aharon compound to 3,159 and detailed how many people could occupy each spectator stand, as well as the platform where the bonfire was to be lit and a plaza where an additional crowd would be gathering. According to estimates by a number of professionals, including a safety adviser who calculated the size of the crowd based on photos taken that night, there were 20,000 people in attendance. The bleachers and the bonfire platform at the Toldos Aharon compound, one of several where bonfires were lit that night, were approved by the engineer after no defects were found in their construction.
The police issued a statement prior to the start of the celebration, which began Thursday evening last week and lasted into the night, in which they said, “In accordance with a Health Ministry decision and in an effort to prevent the spread of the [coronavirus], the number of people at the bonfire compound will be limited to 10,000 people. The public is asked to respect the guidelines and follow police instructions at the checkpoints.” The police said the plan was to permit between 3,000 and 5,000 people at each bonfire site, depending on its size, and that the 10,000 figure referred to the total at all of the bonfires combined.
According to the Channel 12 report, at a safety-related meeting a day before the event the engineer repeatedly expressed concern regarding the number of people who were expected to attend, but Northern Police District Commander Shimon Lavi told him not to worry, that no more than 10,000 people would be attending all of the bonfires at Mount Meron. If the buses bringing visitors to the bonfires continued arriving, “I know how to stop them if necessary,” he reportedly said.
A police source disputed the accuracy of the quote, however, and said that the person in charge of the Toldos Aharon compound had made a commitment that attendance at its bonfire would be limited to 5,000 people, but that the revelers at the sect’s compound were at three separate bonfires. The bonfires elsewhere on the mountain had been cut short after the police decided that the other sites were overcrowded, the source added.