At least 44 dead in Israel Jewish pilgrimage 'disaster'

 

Meron, Israel: Israel on Friday was burying victims of a stampede at a Jewish pilgrimage site that killed at least 45 people, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised an investigation into one of the nation's "worst disasters".

The nighttime carnage struck after pilgrims thronged to Meron at the site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews, or haredim, mark the Lag BaOmer holiday.

The health ministry put the toll at 45 dead. The Magen David Adom rescue agency said an estimated 150 had been injured.

With families anxious to bury loved ones before the Shabbat break, funerals were held in Jerusalem and the mainly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, where Haredi men in traditional long black coats lined the streets to mourn.

Shalom Levy, attending a funeral, called the stampede "a tragedy for the Jewish people".

Among the victims was 38-year Elazar Goldberg, whose father called on God to protect his children as his son was laid to rest in Jerusalem.

The pilgrimage was the largest public gathering in Israel since the Covid-19 pandemic erupted last year.

'Heartbreaking'

Officials had warned overcrowding could fuel viral spread, and only authorized 10,000 to attend the tomb compound.

Israeli media outlets said 90,000 massed at the site, a figure that could not be immediately confirmed from official sources.

There were conflicting reports about what caused the deadly crash, but multiple witnesses said scores of people trampled each other as they moved through a narrow passage.

"What happened here is heartbreaking. There were people crushed to death, including children," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following his visit.

The "Mount Meron disaster" was "one of the worst to hit" Israel since its foundation seven decades ago, he added, promising a "thorough, serious and in-depth investigation in order to ensure that such a disaster does not recur".

He declared that Sunday would be a national day of mourning.

Closed last year due to coronavirus restrictions, this year's pilgrimage drew tens of thousands of people who were seen packed together joyfully singing, dancing, and lighting bonfires before the deadly crash.

In a cruel irony, the BaOmer holiday celebrates the end of a plague that killed thousands of Talmudic students at the time of Rabbi Bar Yochai.

Choke-point

Some witnesses blamed police for not allowing people to exit through a ramp that could have allowed them to escape the crush.

The police "closed it (the ramp). Then, more people arrived, and more and more... and police wouldn't let them exit, so people started to fall on top of each other", Shmuel, 18, told AFP.

There were also indications that pilgrims sought to burst through iron sheet barricades as the choke-point formed.

"It took me back to the period of (Palestinian militant) bombings. There was chaos, people trying to save themselves as they crushed each other," Dov Maisel of the United Hatzala rescue services told army radio.

Northern Israel's police chief Shimon Lavi told AFP his officers had done all they could to save lives on a "tragic night", helping to ferry those injured to hospital.

Lavi told reporters he was prepared to assume "overall responsibility".

Military and rescue service helicopters evacuated the wounded across the country.

Identifying dead

Scenes from Meron hours after the accident showed an ultra-Orthodox Jewish crowd in distress, the men in long black coats and wearing black hats, and debris scattered across the ground.

Survivors lit candles for the victims while others prayed. A row of bodies covered in plastic bags lay on the ground.

Relatives of those affected were flocking to the National Center of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv, where victims were being identified.

Some voiced frustrations to reporters over delays as they pushed to claim bodies before Shabbat.

Israel has fully vaccinated more than half of its 9.3 million population against the coronavirus, but restrictions on massive public gatherings remain in place to stem the spread of the virus.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have throughout the pandemic shown resistance towards health and safety measures mandated by the government.

President Reuven Rivlin received condolence messages including from Australia, the Vatican, King Abdullah II of neighboring Jordan, and from across Europe.

"The loss of life among worshippers practicing their faith is heartbreaking," said US President Joe Biden in a statement, adding that Washington was seeking to confirm reports that American citizens were killed or wounded in the stampede.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth said in a message of condolence she was "deeply saddened by the news of the disaster".

From festival to tragedy

As Yaara Chaimovich visited Meron hours before it became the scene of a deadly stampede, she said she had been looking forward to showing her children "the beauty" of the holy site.

"It's like Woodstock," she said, comparing the Lag BaOmer holiday to the US rock festival. "Someone says a prayer, and everyone responds."

But the annual pilgrimage quickly turned into a horrific night after tens of thousands packed the reputed site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's tomb at Mount Meron in northern Israel.

Chaimovich, 44, said she had just finished watching a bonfire lighting ceremony at about midnight with two of her children when she tried to leave the area among thousands of people.

"Everything was so packed," she told AFP.

As she pushed her five-year-old daughter Rivka ahead of her, Chaimovich said waves of people walked downhill in the opposite direction. In the melee, she lost her other daughter, 11-year-old Leah.

"It was so stressful," Chaimovich recalled.

She took Rivka to the nearby tent where her family had planned to sleep the night. Eventually, Chaimovich said her husband returned to the pilgrimage site and found Leah, with a bruised arm, at a rescue services station.

Dozens of others were less fortunate.

In the early hours of Friday morning, men and children caught in a passage outside the tomb fell and were crushed in a stampede. At least 44 died in what rescue workers called the worst civilian disaster in Israeli history.

In the hours after the tragedy, couples and families wandered the site, stunned at the events that marred a treasured annual rite.

Bonfire-lighting ritual

Moshe Shapiro, 19, carried a tent as he searched for a spot to stay the night.

The Jerusalem resident said he had been to the pilgrimage for each of the past 10 years.

"My father used to take me," he said. "I fell in love with the place."

Shapiro believes the site has miraculous powers, after an upturn in fortunes following a visit last year.

"I prayed for work, and a month later I found a good job," he said. "It was a good salary and fit well with my studies."

Thousands of people were at Meron when he arrived an hour before midnight, he said.

Witnesses said the crush began as people left the site after watching the ritual lighting of bonfires.

"A lot of people left to the same place," Shapiro said.

He slipped away unhurt when he took a different exit.

In the early afternoon Friday, Shapiro walked streets outside the revered grave that were littered with empty water bottles, packaging from snacks, lost keys and prayer books.

Loudspeakers blared from time to time with news of more lost people looking for their families.

Cleaning staff in red vests took on the task of clearing rubbish.

Police officers were thick on the ground as VIPs including Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived to inspect the damage.

'Horrifying'

At Rambam hospital in Haifa, Gil Alon spoke from the bed where he was recovering.

"There was a narrow passage and a stairway," said the 47-year-old.

"This whole area was supposed to contain something like 50 people (but) when I was there, there were at least 300 people," Alon said in a video distributed by the hospital.

Alon said he was among the first to fall down the stairway.

"The bottom half of my body got stuck. There were three of us" lying on top of one another, he said. "The three of us survived because we looked after each other's airways. "

Families hurried to identify their loved ones at the National Center for Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv before Shabbat began.

Yael Freund, 58, of Bnei Brak visited the institute to support families after what she described as a "very difficult" night on the mountain.

She said she saw worrying signs before the tragedy.

"People were fainting," she told AFP. "It was clear this (disaster) was going to happen.

"I wanted to ask the police, 'Why don't you stop people, so no more come down?' I prayed to God, please, make sure there won't be a disaster."

Another witness, Yakov Meyer, described the scene as "horrifying".

"For some reason, the police had closed the gate that was leading out down some stairs where people could have vacated the premises," he told AFP.

"However, they were just crushed and pushed right up against the gate. The gate eventually broke and people fell over it, and then... they were crushed," said the 49-year-old.

"I was shocked. You could hear a lot of people screaming... and then they started carrying bodies out on stretchers."

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