At least 44 people died and dozens more were injured after a massive stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel on Thursday night. Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had gathered for the holiday of Lag b’Omer, taking part in the biggest event since the coronavirus pandemic began.
But within an instant, the religious celebration turned into a scene of absolute horror.
“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,” a witness, Avi, told Haaretz.
“It happened in a split second. People just fell, trampling each other. It was a disaster,” another witness was quoted saying.
The cause of the stampede was not immediately clear, but by the early hours of Friday morning, in addition to the staggering death toll of 44, more than 150 people were injured, the ambulance service Magen David Adom said.
Photos from the scene showed a line of covered bodies.
In the wake of what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “a great tragedy,” the scene at the foot of Mount Meron was one of sheer chaos: Helicopters arrived to evacuate the injured as first responders frantically raced to tend to them all, at times performing resuscitations.
Search and rescue teams, meanwhile, sought out anyone who might be trapped, all while cell phone service reportedly went down in the area as thousands of family members tried to get in touch with loved ones they had been unable to locate.
Some witnesses blamed police barricades for making it harder for attendees to leave.
“We were at the entrance, we decided we wanted to get out and then the police blocked the gate, so whoever wanted to get out could not get out. In that hurry we fell on each other, I thought I was going to die,” one eyewitness was quoted as saying by the Jerusalem Post. “I saw people dead next to me.”
Police sources cited by Haaretz denied that any actions by law enforcement contributed to the stampede, saying the deadly chain of events kicked off after some attendees tripped on steps, knocking over several other people. The incident is now under investigation, police said.
The religious celebration at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was meant to carry on throughout the day Friday, but many of those who witnessed the stampede said the holiday had become too grim.
“No one imagined that this could happen here,” a witness identified as Yitzhak was quoted as telling Channel 12 TV. “Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness.”