Stampede at Israel Religious Celebration Kills at Least 45

JERUSALEM — A stampede early Friday at a mountainside spiritual celebration in Israel that drew tens of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews left at least 45 folks useless and scores extra injured.

By some estimates, about 100,000 folks had been crammed collectively late Thursday to rejoice a vacation on Mount Meron in northern Israel, regardless of warnings from the authorities in regards to the danger of Covid-19 transmission.

The lethal crush started round 1 a.m. on Friday, as celebrants started to pour out of a bit of a compound the place festivities had been being held. The loss of life toll of 45, launched later by the Health Ministry, made it one of many worst civilian disasters in Israeli historical past.

Magen David Adom, the nationwide ambulance service, mentioned early Friday that it had handled 150 injured folks. It posted a video on Twitter that confirmed a fleet of ambulances, crimson sirens flashing, ready to evacuate the wounded.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews traditionally gather at Mount Meron for the holiday, Lag b’Omer, to dance and make bonfires around the tomb of a prominent rabbi from antiquity. Critics have warned for years that the site’s patchy infrastructure cannot safely handle large crowds.

A video said to have been taken right before the stampede on Friday showed a mass of people in ecstatic celebration, moving in unison to the music.

Early accounts of what led to the stampede varied.

Initial reports indicated that a grandstand had collapsed. But as details emerged, it appeared that the crush had occurred after celebrants slipped on stone steps leading into a narrow passageway with a metal-floored slope, setting off what the news site Ynet described as a “human avalanche.”

One of the injured, Chaim Vertheimer, said that the slope had become slippery from spilled water and grape juice.

“For some reason there was sudden pressure at this point and people stopped, but more people kept coming down,” Mr. Vertheimer told Ynet, speaking from his hospital bed in the holy city of Safed. “People were not breathing. I remember hundreds of people screaming ‘I can’t breathe’.”

Some rescue workers attributed the tragedy to the sheer volume of people who had gathered at Mount Meron. Television images from the scene showed shoes, hats, plastic bottles and other debris littering the passageway after it was evacuated. A metal hand rail, meant to help people steady themselves as they walked down the slippery slope, had collapsed.

The site around the rabbi’s tomb had been divided into separate sections in an apparent effort to contain and control the crowds. But as the death toll climbed on Friday morning, questions arose about poor planning and possible negligence.

Footage shot as the disaster unfolded showed police officers trying to stop people from fleeing the scene. That could have been because the officers did not immediately realize the extent of the danger, or because they wanted to prevent the stampede from spilling into other areas of the compound.

Eli Levy, a spokesman for the police, said an investigation was underway but that it was too early to apportion blame or speak of negligence. He also cautioned against drawing conclusions from isolated video clips. Mr. Levy added that despite calls to evacuate the mountain, some celebrants had refused to leave or tried to make their way back.

On Thursday, 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 obey coronavirus restrictions.

However it unfolded, by the time the stampede was over, a scene of joy had transformed into one of horror.

One eyewitness likened it to a war zone, telling Channel 12 TV that he had seen the bodies of two dead children. Images from the disaster scene showed bodies on stretchers, covered with foil blankets.

Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, Eric Nagourney from New York and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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