Sunday has been declared a national day of mourning in Israel, after an annual religious pilgrimage turned into scenes of horror and a mass casualty event overnight.
45 people were killed with 150 others left with major injuries during the Lag B’Omer holiday, when tens of thousands of mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews gather at the Mount Meron tomb of the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for commemorations that include all-night prayer, bonfires and dance.
Preliminary police investigation shows that the slipping of some attendees on a staircase leading to an outdoor platform resulted in a ‘human avalanche’ that literally crushed those below. Others died while trying to flee for their lives down narrow alleyways that resulted in a stamped. Still others were seen falling from rooftops, where they had climbed to gain better vantage points.
TV7 spoke to two representatives of the United Hatzalah in Israel emergency medical services organization, which was on site during the catastrophe. The organization, which provides first response treatment throughout the country, has stationed hundreds of volunteers in tents and roving patrols to provide medical coverage at the event since just one year after being founded in 2006.
United Hatzalah Vice President for Operations Dov Maisel, who was on the scene for 25 consecutive hours, estimated the crowd size was 100,000.
“It was simply horrifying,” he said, describing the disaster as “apocalyptic” as some United Hatzalah teams worked to save lives of victims, while working to safely escort crowds away from the vicinity in order to access greater numbers of the injured. He said the age range of those gathered was as high as 80 and young as 10, saying he knew of an 11-year-old boy in critical condition.
United Hatzalah Spokesman Raphael Poch said injuries of this magnitude has never occurred during the Lag B’Omer event before. Even though up to 400,000 people traditionally visit over the course of 48 hours, until now treatment was generally limited to minor burns, smoke inhalation or heat stroke.
The fatalities were predominantly due to “blunt force trauma and subsequent suffocation,” said the United Hatzalah Spokesperson, while the Vice President added that many literally “choked to death.”
Firefighters and police who rushed to the scene helped to free trapped worshippers, who were evacuated to hospital in the north and the center of the country by ambulances and Israeli Air Force helicopters.
“There were heartbreaking scenes here. People were crushed to death, including children,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in what “is one of the worst disasters to hit the State of Israel.”
“We grieve for the victims. Our hearts are with the families and with the wounded to whom we wish a full recovery,” he said, while also expressing ‘profound gratitude’ for the “quick rescue work here by the police, the rescue and security forces” who “prevented a far worse disaster.”
As he lighted memorial candles for each of the fatalities, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin offered his “heartfelt thanks to those working without a break since last night to rescue and give medical treatment.”
“This is the time to embrace the families to help all those looking for their loved ones to take those injured to our hearts,” said the Israeli leader, underscoring, “To weep together.”
In a statement TV7 obtained from the Defense Ministry, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that, “All night long, our security forces, Homefront Command rescue teams, the IDF Northern Command, and the Israeli Air Force have worked alongside the police force and field personnel to save human lives.”
“This is a difficult hour and our hearts are with the families,” he added, saying that the authorities “are wholly committed to investigating the failures, drawing the necessary conclusions and applying them going forward so that this type of tragedy never repeats itself.”
“Words cannot possibly offer comfort and cannot possibly describe the magnitude of pain caused by the terrible tragedy at Mount Meron. From the bottom of my heart, I share my deepest sympathies with the families who have lost loved ones and pray for the recovery of the injured,” he emphasized.
United Hatzalah volunteers working at the on-site Psychological Trauma and Crisis Response Unit were also able to provide immediate treatment for participants suffering shock and severe stress. First-responders also received treatment for distress incurred during their care of the victims.
“After 30 years in the field, what I witnessed immediately evoked recollections of terrorist bombings in Jerusalem,” said United Hatzalah Vice President Maisel.
Several emergency hotlines have been set up for relatives of the injured:
Ziv Medical Center in Safed – 1255161
Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya – 1255141
Baruch Padeh Medical Center in Tiberias – 1255162
Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa – 1255144
Enquiries about missing relatives – *1201
Jerusalem Crisis Center: 106
Festivities at Mount Meron resumed this year after having been cancelled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Participants were instructed to observe social distancing and wear masks, in accordance with ongoing government restrictions to curb spread of the disease.
— By Erin Viner