45 Killed and Hundreds Injured in Deadly Stampede During Religious Festival in Israel: Report

People were asphyxiated or trampled in the tightly packed corridor, Reuters reported, quoting medics, who said that casualties included children.

Forty-five people were crushed to death and more than 150 injured in a stampede early Friday morning during an ultra-Orthodox religious festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Haaretz newspaper reported.

The stampede occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer, the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. During the festival, large crowds pray, dance, and light bonfires in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd-century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried there, the Associated Press reported. 

According to witnesses, around 1 a.m., members of the ultra-Orthodox Hassidic community of Toldot Aharon were pushing through a slippery staircase when suddenly, a row of people fell to the floor, piling atop of one other, NPR reported.

People were asphyxiated or trampled in the tightly packed corridor, Reuters reported, quoting medics, who said that casualties included children.

"It happened in a split second; people just fell, trampling each other. It was a disaster," another witness said. Two different witnesses told Haaretz that a police barricade prevented people from exiting and caused overcrowding. 

Overnight, buses had evacuated crowds from the site. Mobile reception crashed as families searched for loved ones. The Israeli president’s office set up an emergency hotline to help families searching for missing relatives. 

Authorities asked families to bring medical records and photographs of their relatives to Israel’s central morgue in order to identify those who were killed, NPR reported. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the disaster scene midday Friday, calling the tragedy "one of the worst disasters that has befallen the state of Israel,” and declared Sunday a day of national mourning, Haaretz reported. 

Despite warnings from Israeli health officials, local media estimated the crowd at this year's festival at around 100,000 people, a report said. 

Due to COVID-19 concerns, officials had limited the number of bonfires at the site this year in an attempt to manage the massive crowds that were gathering. A young survivor told the Israeli news station Channel 12 that he believed that more people came at once because there were not a lot of bonfires at this year’s celebration, NPR reported.

Hezi Levi, the director-general of Israel's Ministry of Health, told the national public broadcasting station that he expressed his concerns of having hundreds of thousands of people gather for the Lag BaOmer holiday due to a potential virus outbreak.

Families of those who died in the stampede are racing to bury the dead before sundown Friday, the start of the Jewish Sabbath when burials do not take place, according to reports.

The death toll at Mount Meron exceeded the 44 people killed in a 2010 forest fire. That had previously been believed to be the deadliest civilian tragedy in the country’s history, AP reported.

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