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Israel stampede: Dozens crushed to death at major religious festival

Dozens of people have been crushed to death during a stampede at a religious festival in northeast Israel on Friday, rescue services said describing it as “one of [Israel’s] worst disasters in recent history”.

At least 44 people were killed during the event while more than 150 sustained injuries, according to medical officials. Army Radio reported that children were among the dead.

Footage taken just moments before the deadly incident at the base of Israel’s Mount Meron showed heaving crowds of black-clad ultra-Orthodox worshippers crushed in a narrow, tunnel-like passage as they exited the site.

As people scream in the background as at least one person can be seen falling over, which is believed to be the start of what triggered the crush.

Witnesses said people began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway, as they descended slippery metal stairs. In one video, officers can be seen ripping down corrugated barricades that stopped participants from exiting the scene quickly in front of what appears to be a heap of people, so crushed together, they cannot move.

Ultra Orthodox Jews look at the scene where fatalities were reported among the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews during Lag BaOmer festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021.  (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

“Masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created,” a man identified only by his first name Dvir told Israel’s Army Radio. He described a terrifying sight as the first row of people fell down, saying he was in the next row of people who tripped. “I felt like I was about to die,” he said.

Among the wounded there are 44 in critical condition, some of whom have been airlifted to hospitals, Israel’s national emergence service Magen David Adom (MDA) said.

Eli Bin, MDA’s director-general called it “one of the most difficult civil disasters the State of Israel has ever known.”

“It is difficult to contain the magnitude of the disaster,” he said. 

Uriel Goldberg, international relations coordinator and paramedic for MDA said that he has not known of a worse stampede in Israeli history. 

“It’s definitely one of the worst disasters in recent times,” he told The Independent. In the chaos, paramedics told Channel 12 there were more than 30 children who had been separated from their parents and were being tended to by emergency workers.

Calling it a “heavy disaster”, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to Twitter to say: "We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties."

: Emergency workers gather at the scene after dozens of people were killed and others injured after a grandstand collapsed in Meron, Israel, where tens of thousands of people were gathered to celebrate the festival of Lag Ba'omer at the site in northern Israel early on April 30, 2021.

MDA officials said that they received the first distress calls just before 1am near the “Toldot Aharon” celebration, beside the Rashbi tomb in Mount Meron, as tens of thousands of people gathered there to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer, a holiday that in part commemorates 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

His tomb, buried at the base of Mount Meron, is considered a holy site in Israel and ultra-Orthodox Jews throng there for the annual commemoration that includes all-night prayer and mystical songs and dance. Large crowds also traditionally light bonfires as part of the celebrations.

It was the first major religious gathering held in the country since Israel lifted nearly all coronavirus related restrictions. According to media estimates, 100,000 people had gathered for the celebration. Health authorities had warned against holding such a large gathering because of the pandemic.

Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, said he was horrified at the size of the crowd, adding that the site was equipped to handle only a quarter of the number who were present.

The death toll was on par with the number of people killed in a 2010 forest fire, which is believed to be the deadliest civilian tragedy in the country’s history.

Zaki Heller, a spokesman for MDA, told Army Radio that “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said. MDA paramedic Omri Hochman, who was one of the first to arrive to treat the injured, said: “ The sights were very difficult, dozens of wounded lay in a narrow corridor and next to it. 

Dozens more walked around suffering from various injuries. There were cries of pain, sighs and there were those who lost consciousness and needed resuscitation. ”MDA paramedic Maor Atadgi added: “We rescued the injured from piles of people and performed resuscitation operations on people who were fatally wounded… In all my years at MDA, I do not remember such a heavy disaster.”

Other witnesses described the speed with which the crowded scenes descended into chaos as festival-goers started slipping, one after the other. “It happened in a split second; people just fell, trampling each other. It was a disaster,” a witness told Haaretz.

“We were standing and waiting for our friends, we were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids,” Shlomo Katz, a witness, was quoted as saying by Reuters.

It was only after he saw ambulances come out “one after the other” that he realised something had gone wrong. “We just went to the side as the ambulances were driving in and out and we waited until we were able to slowly get out,” he said.

The Israeli military has also dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist with a “mass casualty incident” in the area, reported the Associated Press. 

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