TEL AVIV — The holiday of Lag BaOmer is one of the happiest days on the calendar for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community — a time of mass celebrations in honour of a revered sage. But in a split second Friday, the festive gathering in northern Israel turned into one of the country’s worst-ever tragedies, with at least 45 people crushed to death and dozens injured in a stampede.
The disaster prompted a national outpouring of grief as devastated families rushed to identify their dead relatives and bury them ahead of the Jewish Sabbath, AP reported.
There was also anger toward authorities over an accident that experts had long feared, further clouding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hopes of remaining in office.
Netanyahu, who briefly visited Mount Meron at midday, offered his condolences. “In these moments our people unite and that is what we are doing at this moment as well,” he said.
He announced Sunday would be a day of national mourning and said he had joined the masses of people who donated blood for the victims. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin lit 45 candles in honor of the dead. Messages of condolences poured in from around the world.
President Joe Biden said he was heartbroken and had called Netanyahu to offer support. “The people of the United States and Israel are bound together by our families, our faiths, and our histories, and we will stand with our friends,” he said.
The stampede erupted around 1 a.m. as people began to leave and thronged a narrow, tunnel-like passage. According to witnesses, people began to fall on a slippery ramp, causing others to trip and sparking panic.
Avigdor Hayut, who survived the stampede, described slipping on the ramp and getting trapped in the crowd with his two sons, ages 10 and 13.
“My son screamed, ‘I’m dying,’” he told Israel’s public TV station Kan. A policeman tried to pull him and his younger son out of the crowd but couldn’t move them.
“The policeman threw up and started crying, and I understood what he was looking at, what I couldn’t see,” said Hayut, 36, who suffered a broken ankle and ribs. “I thought this was the end.” He said he began to pray and “simply waited.”
Hours later, in hospital with Shmuel, his 10-year-old, they learned that his other son, Yedidya, had died.
Lag BaOmer is very popular with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. The main event takes place each year at Mount Meron. Tens of thousands, mostly ultra-Orthodox, celebrate to honour Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd-century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried there. This year, authorities said some 100,000 people attended.
The crowds light bonfires, dance and have large festive meals as part of the celebrations. Across the country, even in secular areas, smaller groups gather in parks and forests for barbecues and bonfires.
Video footage from the scene of the disaster showed large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. Witnesses complained that police barricades had prevented people from exiting properly.
“The officers who were there couldn’t care less,” said Velvel Brevda, a rabbi who witnessed the stampede. He blamed the government for the deaths of “beautiful holy Jews that were killed here for no reason whatsoever.”
At least 45 people were killed, according to the Israeli Health Ministry, with four people remaining in critical condition and dozens more hospitalised.
Bodies were later taken to Israel’s central forensic institute for identification, where distraught families waited to identify their loved ones. Israel’s Army Radio said some 40 people remained unaccounted for.