All 45 Victims Identified From Mount Meron Disaster as Israelis Continue to Bury Dead

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A funeral for one of those killed during the Mount Meron disaster in northern Israel, today.
A funeral for one of those killed during the Mount Meron disaster in northern Israel, today.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Abu Kabir forensic institute confirmed on Sunday that the bodies of all 45 victims from a mass stampede on Lag Ba'omer festivities overnight Thursday have been identified.

The institute, based in Jaffa, announced that it managed to identify all the bodies by around midnight on Saturday. Of those, all but one have been released for burial. The final body will be released on Sunday, at the request of his family. 

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry said that at least four American citizens and one Argentinian are among the victims of the disaster.funerals of several of those killed in a mass stampede during Lag Ba'omer festivities overnight Thursday in northern Israel has resumed on Saturday evening, following a cessation of burials over Shabbat after instruction by Israel's chief rabbi.

The head of the institute, Dr. Chen Kugel, said in a statement that a "disaster of this magnitude requires very complex assessments by the institution" and that they did their utmost to strike a balance between speed and professionalism. He also expressed his condolences to the family.

Across the country, further victims were interred after sunset on Saturday. On Friday night, ten identified bodies were not released for burial due to restrictions over Shabbat. Those bodies, alongside additional dead who were identified on Saturday evenings, were buried on Saturday night. 

Among those buried on Saturday was 20-year-old Yaakov Elchanan Starkovsky from a yeshiva in Elad and 24-year-old Haim Ozer Seller from Bnei Brak, who became a father just a few weeks earlier. Yedidya Hayut, 13-years-old, was also buried. His father, who was also injured in the stampede, was released from hospital to attend the funeral.

Over 150 people were injured at the mass Lag Ba'omer festivities in Mount Meron, where a stampede broke out overnight Thursday. Twenty-one people are currently hospitalized throughout the country, with four being in serious condition, according to emergency response teams. 

Mount Meron was densely packed on Thursday night; search and rescue authorities say they struggled to evacuate people who were trapped. The stampede was caused after some revelers slipped on steps, causing dozens more people to fall over, according to police sources. 

At midnight, thousands gathered on spectator stands for the beginning of the Toldos Aharon Hasidic community’s bonfire-lighting ceremony. At 12:50 A.M., following the lighting ceremony, when dancing began, a tightly packed crowd of hundreds of people headed towards the exit.

The Toldos Aharon section of the exit path is a narrow passageway with a smooth and sloped metal floor. As the minutes passed, the crowd became denser. There was nothing to hold onto and the people in the throng leaned on one another.

At 1 A.M. The disaster occurred when some at the site stumbled on the stairs. Many lost their footing and fell on top of one another, crushing the victims. 

Panic sparked attempts to escape, which only exacerbated the situation. Hundreds who were trapped tried to find a way out.

Mobile reception had crashed at Mount Meron as families were searching for missing loved ones. "Sadly, there are fatalities," the director of Hatzala's medical division Avi Marcus said.   

Ambulance services arrived at the scene and began treating dozens of injured revelers, with some patients being resuscitated. Six helicopters arrived to evacuate the wounded.  

"I had just sat down to eat when I heard the screams. We rushed to help, and then we saw the bodies. At the start it was about 10. Now there's many more," Avi, a witness who helped treat the injured, told Haaretz. 

U.S. offers aid, condolences

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday to extend his condolences over the disaster.

According to a White House statement, Biden instructed his team to offer assistance to the government and people of Israel as they respond to the disaster.

The statement added that the U.S. Embassy and the State Department will work to support any U.S. citizen or family member affected by the event. At least four American citizens and one Argentinian are among the victims of the disaster, according to Israel's Foreign Ministry. 

The community of one of the American victims is publicly mourning his loss. The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey tweeted on Friday: “It is with a heavy heart that we share the news that Donny Morris, son of Mirlana and Aryeh Morris of Bergenfield, was one of the victims of the tragic event that occurred yesterday in Meron, Israel.  Donny was a graduate of the Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy (MTA) and studying in Israel for his gap year.

Our deepest condolences go to the Morris family. May Donny's memory only be for a blessing.”

Tens of thousands of Hassidic Jews participated on Thursday in the annual Lag Ba'omer festivities at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, making it the largest event held in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic broke out last year.

Attendance at the event, located at the foot of Mount Meron and set to continue until midday Friday, was higher than it was last year, when festivities were held under restrictions that were meant to halt the spread of the virus. It was still lower than was the norm before the pandemic, however.

Netanyahu visited the disaster scene on Friday and asked to declare Sunday a day of national mourning. The government approved the request; flags will be flown at half-mast at all government buildings.

The prime minister was briefed on the situation on the ground by Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and other officials.

President Reuven Rivlin also offered his condolences, as did Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who tweeted he is closely following developments on this "sad and difficult night." 

Defense Minister Benny Gantz met on Friday with Israeli military Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and other security officials at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to discuss a response to the disaster.

He ordered that the liaison units of the Home Front Command, who work with local government authorities, make all possible resources available to ultra-Orthodox communities around the country; most of those who were present at the disaster were ultra-Orthodox.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh wrote on Twitter that he is continuing to follow the tragedy. "Amid shock and bereavement, many citizens are offering their help, proving that solidary can be found across religions and nations," he added.

'It couldn't be prevented' 

Senior police figures are deflecting blame for Thursday night's deadly stampede from Israel Police northern district commander Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavie.

"Pinning the responsibility on Lavie isn't right, this event was inevitable," a senior police source told Haaretz. 

However, Lavie said that he bears full responsibility for the deadly event. "I'll put things on the table, I, Shimon Lavie, the commander of the Israel Police Northern District, bear full responsibility, for better or worse," he said Friday morning.

"We've prepared for all scenarios, we've prioritized the issue of public safety without any compromises. I can tell you that at the moment we are collecting evidence to get to the bottom of what happened."

Police sources told Haaretz that in the days leading up to the event, the site was checked for any safety issues. The sources added that people slipping on the stairs "was out of our [police] control."

"The event is under investigation, but it's worth noting that this year, there are fewer people on the mountain than in previous years." 

Lavie was the official authority in charge of the evening's events, signing off on preparations. 

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana issued a statement on Friday morning, saying "A terrible disaster happened last night in Meron. It's clear that an independent investigation is needed, examining all aspects, such as planning, preparation, responsibilities and infrastructure."

"I'm sending heartfelt condolences to the families and pray for a speedy recovery of the wounded. Rescue teams and security forces are focusing on identifying the victims, notifying families, and making sure people return to their homes," Ohana added.

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