Witnesses who were at Mount Meron at the time of the deadly stampede that left 44 dead and over 150 injured recounted the horror of what was meant to be a festive and jovial Lag Ba'omer celebration.
Tens of thousands of people participated 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.
Since the site was so densely attended, search and rescue authorities say they struggled to evacuate trapped people. The stampede was caused after some revelers slipped on steps, causing dozens more people to fall over, according to police sources.
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When dawn broke on Mount Meron, the scene was covered with thousands of blue plastic bottles, crushed by the crowds that had stepped on them. Witnesses said the water bottles had been thrown into the crowd in the course of efforts to get people out.
The bottles, however, were all over the area, raising the question as to whether they caused people in the crowd to slip and fall, precipitating the avalanche of people.
“We were 20 friends from the yeshiva. We were standing close to the [Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai] grave, and all of a sudden, a dad started yelling that his son was trapped.," Arik, who was at Mt. Meron at the time, said from hospital.
"People were screaming, ‘I can’t breathe, can’t breathe.’ This boy started yelling, ‘Dad, I can’t breathe,” Arik recounted. “One person threw up on me and was choking. One person was lying on my leg and I yelled at him to move, but he was totally unconscious.”
"It was chaos. I was there the second it happened, and I thought it was just something small," Netivot resident Shachar told Haaretz.
"But after seeing stretcher after stretcher, with no end in sight. There was no blood; in hindsight, we understood they choked to death. Then the ambulances began arriving, one after the other.
"Search and rescue teams arrived, ambulance, fire and rescue services, the police," they added.
"Even the people without medical training began to help to clear the injured people towards the Yeshiva."
In the daylight, thin, bent railings lined a stairway. Witnesses said that a large number of people had tried to jump over them in an attempt to flee. On the other side of the railings, people had lifted children to extract them from the crush.
In a corner not far from the stairs, there were still bags with abandoned belongings like the large black hats worn by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protruding out of them.
Eliyahu, who was injured in the disaster, described a scene of total confusion. “We tried to leave, but the police had closed all kinds of areas and weren’t letting us leave,” he said.
“We begged them to open the gates to get out, but the police for some reason didn’t let people leave and everyone was pushed, and people were simply trampled to death. I didn’t understand what was happening and fainted,” he added.
"I had just sat down to eat when I heard the screams; We rushed to help, and there were stretchers with bodies on them, and people trying to resuscitate them while carrying them," said Avi, a witness who helped treat the injured told Haaretz.
"Then we saw the bodies. At the start it was about 10. Now, there's many more."
"It happened in a split second; people just fell, trampling each other. It was a disaster," another witnesses said.
Two different witnesses told Haaretz that a police barricade prevented people from exiting and caused overcrowding.
On Friday morning, even before the disaster site was fully cleared, a crowd of curious onlookers gathered there. A line of buses was streaming from the top of the mountain to evacuate those who have still been unable to leave.