A stampede at a religious celebration that drew tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews to a mountain in northern Israel late Thursday left at least 15 people dead and dozens injured, according to local news reports.
“A terrible disaster” declared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as conflicting reports trickled in from Mount Meron.
By some estimates, about 100,000 people were crammed together near midnight to celebrate the feast of Lag b’Omer, when ultra-Orthodox Jews traditionally convene at the tomb of a prominent rabbi from antiquity on Mount Meron. The festivities include dancing and bonfires.
According to some early reports, the stampede was set off by a collapsing grandstand, though others cited a roof collapse. Some rescue workers attributed it to the sheer volume people.
A video said to have been taken right before the stampede showed a mass of people in ecstatic celebration, moving almost as one to the music.
Amid the chaos, as medics tried to navigate the crowd to get to the injured, a prominent Israeli rabbi, Meir Lau, remained on a stage attempting to restore calm. Along with other leading rabbis, he read psalms for the wounded.
The annual pilgrimage was held despite warnings from Israeli health officials that it could become a Covid-19 superspreader event, Reuters reported. .
Last year, the Israeli authorities arrested over 300 people at the Lag b’Omer celebration after large crowds gathered in defiance of coronavirus restrictions, ignoring police checkpoints on roads. Some were reported to have thrown stones and other objects at a police officers who tried to control the crowd.
The gathering on Thursday in northern Galilee was described as the largest in Israel since the pandemic broke out — and thousands more people had been expected to arrive at Mount Meron on Friday.
Earlier in the evening, before the stampede, the Israeli police said they had arrested two people for disrupting officers’ efforts to keep order at the site. But the crowd was so vast, the police said, that they could not make people follow coronavirus restrictions.
Once emergency medical workers were able to gain access, they worked to resuscitate some victims, the newspaper Haaretz reported. Helicopters also were sent to evacuate the injured.
But some — the numbers varied — were beyond saving.
The Times of Israel put the death toll at 28 or more. Images from the disaster scene showed bodies on stretchers, covered with blankets.
The police shut down the celebration and ordered the revelers to be evacuated by bus, Reuters reported.