'Nothing Prepares You for This': Mount Meron First Responders at High Risk of PTSD

The Mount Meron stampede, Israel's deadliest peacetime disaster, left many rescuers and volunteers trying to cope with the lingering effects of the chaotic scenes they've witnessed

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
First responders gather belongings from the scene of the Meron disaster, last week.
First responders gather victims' belongings from the scene of the Meron disaster, last week.Credit: rami shllush
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

On Saturday night, a young volunteer from one of the rescue organizations returned to Bnei Brak after the funeral of Yedidya Hayut, the 13-year-old who had been killed in the stampede at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron. He said that his arms still hurt from the resuscitations he carried out Thursday night – 16 in all, not all of them successful.

He couldn’t sleep at night, and he said he wasn’t the only one: “As a Zaka [emergency response] member, you come to the scene and you’re used to seeing a body, two, three. But here there were so many dead. Volunteers were crying.”

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The field operation may be over, but mental health professionals and social workers in hospitals and at the organizations themselves are helping the hundreds of employees and volunteers who were at Mount Meron process what they went through.

“There are circles of exposure to events and crises,” said Prof. Israel Strauss, director of psychiatry at Mayanei Hayeshua Hospital in Bnei Brak. “There’s the person who experienced it, then there are those who only saw it, then the family of the victim and then those who administered treatment. All of them are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“This is the first real multi-victim event of the decade,” added Eliezer Samet, another Zaka member who was at the tomb that whole Lag Ba’omer night. Samet, who has also been volunteering with Magen David Adom for the past five years, says that he had been coming to the celebrations at Meron since he was three years old and is very familiar with the narrow passage where the tragedy took place.

Zaka emergency rescue services at the scene of the disaster, Friday.Credit: Rami Shllush

“I heard a medic yelling on the radio, ‘I have a collapse event here,’ and then I heard, ‘I have a resuscitation,’ and then another resuscitation and another resuscitation,” he said. “I ran to the site and I saw a body and another body. I called my Zaka commander and told him, ‘I have a catastrophe.’ I’ve been at training exercises with the army. No exercise prepares you for this.

“I was standing at the bottom with the bodies, taking out [body] bags, and suddenly I heard phones ringing in the pockets of the dead,” Samet recalled. “It was only at that point that I realized that this was [a disaster], until that moment I’d been working like a machine. I didn’t know what to do. It’s not the first time I’ve heard a dead person’s phone ringing, but here there were a lot of phones, surrounded by silence.”

Samet hasn’t slept well since the disaster either; he has spoken with a few psychologists and encourages all the rescue workers who were at the scene to speak with a professional.

“The idea is to normalize the experiences, that the feelings those who were there are feeling are expected and that they have to talk about it,” said Dr. Lidia Izakson, head of the mental health department at Ziv Medical Center in Safed. Izakson was called to the hospital early Friday morning to help with those suffering from shock, and in recent days has been working with the hospital’s administrative staff who had assisted the families of the injured.

“Some of the staff’s children were at the hillulot and some didn’t know if they’d gotten home,” said Izakson. “There was great identification with the injured, because they didn’t know where their own children were at that stage. It’s a staff that doesn’t deal with death and injuries on a daily basis, and they were at a loss. They had no information to give the families or themselves, so the personal and the professional were intertwined. We had to calm them without any factual information about whether their children were really okay.”

A first responder prays at the scene of the disaster, Friday.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Izakson added, “The preparation that medical and nursing teams get – including the mental preparation – is apparently instilled more in those who are going to work as stretcher-bearers or doctors, but one cannot forget the other workers.” All 17 administrative workers who were on shift that night had a meeting with professionals on Sunday that Izakson described as “tense.”

At his hospital in Bnei Brak, Strauss also described how the personal was mixing with the professional. “I was in the emergency room on Friday, right after the disaster,” he said. “Many of our staffers are religious and ultra-Orthodox, and a member of our ER team lost her husband. The whole staff had to cope with this, processing the feeling of pain, while working to help other people and dealing with their feelings.”

Strauss has been leading support groups for hospital employees. He said he’s managed to discern three primary issues among those who were working at the time of the disaster. The first is that watching videos from the site of the stampede wasn’t good for them. “It’s a type of flashback that repeats itself, and it isn’t good at all,” he said. “Forgetting is a type of defense mechanism, but the videos from the disaster bring the trauma back, and that can make the situation worse.”

Another thing he noticed was the overwhelming feelings among rescue workers who were forced to give up resuscitating people and had to jump from person to person. The third issue was that the rescuers kept referencing the Holocaust. “There were bodies piled on top of each other, eyeglasses on the side, shoes on the side. Death by suffocation. The issue of the Holocaust was there. We didn’t anticipate that,” Strauss said.

The social workers coordinator at Ziv, Yaniv Ben Shoshan, said the hospital has already held seven meetings for staff members, “Including stretcher-bearers and secretaries.” Ben Shoshan stressed the uncertainty staff members felt during the encounter with the families of the dead, especially because they didn’t know where the bodies had been sent.

“We were coping with a chaotic reality and had to try to absorb it, collect pieces of information and put the puzzle together,” he explained. “We knew where the injured were, since most of them came to us, but there were many dead whose location we didn’t know. On Sunday we held a support meeting for the clerks and switchboard workers, who had never experienced a situation like this. It was a two-and-a-half-hour meeting and we are following up. In abnormal situations, reactions like fear, anxiety, confusion or anger are normal responses.”

On Sunday there was a support meeting for the social workers and on Tuesday there was a meeting for the stretcher-bearers. Ben Shoshan said it’s extremely important that each group of workers hold its own meeting, so that people can discuss their experiences freely. “I want to tell top Health Ministry officials that those providing assistance and treatment need support and assistance on a regular basis, not just in emergencies,” he said. “For all the support we provide to others, the supporters also need support.”

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