At least 45 people were killed and over 150 were injured at the mass Lag Ba'omer festivities in Mount Meron in northern Israel, 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. Thus far, 32 out of 45 of the bodies have been identified, the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine said. Of those, 22 have been released for burial.
Shabbat started Friday night, which meant that the institute could not continue releasing more bodies for burial, a process that involves confirming the identification of victims, on the orders of the chief rabbi.
Since the site was so densely attended, 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, fell on top of one another, crushing the victims.
Panic sparked attempts to escape, only exacerbating the situation, as 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.
"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.
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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the disaster scene on Friday and asked to declare Sunday a day of national mourning. 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.
“The Mount Meron disaster is one of the worst that the State of Israel has ever experienced. We are pained over those who have died. Our hearts are with the families as well as with the injured, to whom we wish a full recovery,” Netanyahu said.
“There have been heartbreaking scenes here, people who were crushed to death, including children. A large portion of the dead have still not been identified, and I would ask that rumors not be spread on social media, because this is heartbreaking for the families. Let the authorities do their job,” the prime minister said.
“I also have to add that the police and rescue and security services carried out a rapid rescue operation here, and we are very grateful to them. They have prevented an even much larger disaster,” he said, adding, “We will prepare for a thorough, serious and in-depth investigation to ensure that such a disaster is not repeated. I wish to declare Sunday a day of national mourning. Let’s all come join with the families in their grief and pray for the wellbeing of the injured.”
President Reuven Rivlin also offered his condolences, as well as 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 army 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.
Police evacuated the tens of thousands of people from Mount Meron via the parking lots and several stations after closing the main entrance to the site in order to restrict movement. In response to the disaster, Israel's train service began operating trains from northern station Carmiel to Tel Aviv to help clear crowds.
Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai arrived at the scene to oversee the forces. Earlier in the evening, both Shabtai and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana were at Mount Meron to watch security forces prepare for the mass event.
'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 and 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.