Israel stampede: Children, teens account for a third of dead

Jerusalem, Undefined: At least 16 children and teenagers were among the 45 people killed in a stampede at a Jewish pilgrimage in Israel, including thirteen-year-old "Azi," a "sweet" boy who enjoyed learning.

The tragedy on Mount Meron in northern Israel on Friday has been dubbed one of the country's worst peacetime disasters since its founding in 1948.

It had an influence on a large number of young people who had come to what was described as a spiritual festival for mostly observant Jews.

According to the mother of a boy in his eighth-grade class who demanded anonymity while addressing the suicide, Azi, whose full name was Elazar Yitzchak Koltai, was buried Saturday night in Jerusalem.

"It was very sad... There was a lot of crying," she said of the funeral in Jerusalem's Har Hof neighborhood, where Azi's small body was wrapped in a prayer shawl in the school's lobby.

Azi "was a sweet, happy kind of kid", she said. "He loved to learn Torah," Judaism's holy book.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to the site where the Jewish mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is thought to be buried on Thursday, setting off the tragedy.

The event is held every year on the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer, which commemorates the day he is believed to have died.

It was Israel's largest gathering since the coronavirus pandemic started, with an attendance well exceeding the 10,000-person limit set by the health ministry for outdoor gatherings.

Witnesses said that shortly after midnight on Friday, pilgrims were crammed into a narrow passageway leading away from the site when someone slipped and died in a stampede.

The Abu Kabir National Center of Forensic Medicine in Israel announced on Sunday that all 45 people killed in the crash had been found.

The smallest victim was a 9-year-old boy. At least 16 of the 45 people killed were under the age of 19.

Pilgrims celebrate with song and dance at the event known as "Hilula," which comes from the Hebrew word for "to honour," according to Rabbi Tuvia Rosen of the Nachlei Daas school outside Jerusalem. Donors also provide free food for hundreds of thousands of travelers.

Despite the fact that the pilgrimage dates back hundreds of years, Rosen claims it has increased significantly as Israel's religious Jewish population has grown, resulting in an increase in the number of young people who participate.

'Dad, I'm dying' 

A visibly exhausted Avigdor Hayut, 36, who brought two sons to Meron, recounted to Israeli media the death of his 13-year-old son, Yedidya.

The resident of the mainly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak described "a river" of people who piled up behind his family as they exited an area where a ceremonial bonfire was lit.

The father and his sons fell. Hayut's 10-year-old son lay beside him and said during the stampede, "Dad, I'm dying," Hayut recalled but in "a visible miracle," recovered.

Hayut suffered broken ribs and a broken ankle.

"Yedidya, to my great sorrow, didn't survive," Hayut said.

"He was a saint, a holy boy. And if he would have wanted me to say anything, it's one thing: We all have common ground. We are Jews."

Yedidya was buried Saturday, according to Israel's Kan television.

The fatalities included two sets of young brothers.

All the victims at the gender-separated site were male, although women who attended the festival said they also fought through jammed crowds, and some lost contact with their children among the masses.

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