Tel Aviv (Reuters) – Medical teams worked on Friday to identify 45 people crushed to death in a stampede at a religious festival on the slopes of Israel’s Mount Meron, with children among the dead.
Witnesses spoke of seeing a “pyramid” of people who were asphyxiated or trampled in a passageway around 3 metres (10 feet) wide at the crowded event in the Galilee.
Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had thronged to the tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for the annual Lag B’Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.
The festival was segregated by gender, and medics said the injuries and deaths were concentrated in the men’s section.
Police asked family members of those who were still missing to provide pictures and personal information to help with the identification process.
By late afternoon, the Health Ministry said 32 of the dead had been identified. As sunset neared, the process was halted for 24 hours in observance of the Jewish Sabbath, and would resume on Saturday evening.
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to offer condolences, and said the United States was working to confirm reports that Americans may have died or been injured.
Netanyahu called the crush one of the “heaviest disasters” in Israeli history and promised a thorough investigation to ensure it did not happen again. The country will observe a day of mourning on Sunday.
Crowds had packed the site in northern Israel despite warnings to maintain COVID-19 social distancing.
Videos posted on social media in the minutes after the crush showed ultra-Orthodox men clambering desperately through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the crush.
People who stayed on the scene through the night questioned how the situation so quickly spiralled out of control, though there had been concern for years about safety risks at the annual event.
“There was some kind of mess, police, screaming, a big mess, and after half an hour it looked like a scene of a suicide bombing attack, numerous people coming out from there on stretchers,” said 19-year-old festival-goer Hayim Cohen.
“We were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from (ambulance service) MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids,” 36-year-old pilgrim Shlomo Katz told Reuters.
An injured man lying on a hospital bed described how the crush began when a line of people in the front of the surging crowd simply collapsed.
“A pyramid of one on top of another was formed. People were piling up one on top of the other. I was in the second row. The people in the first row – I saw people die in front of my eyes,” he told reporters.
The Mount Meron tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and is an annual pilgrimage site. The event was one of the largest gatherings in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic began more than a year ago.
The Justice Ministry said investigators would look into whether there had been any police misconduct connected to the tragedy.
About a decade ago a government watchdog report found fault with the management of the festival premises, and a “systemic failure” in maintenance that could endanger visitors. It was not immediately known what steps were taken to remedy the situation.
A police spokesman said overall capacity at Mount Meron was similar to previous years but that this time bonfire areas were partitioned off as a COVID-19 precaution. Israel media said that may have created unexpected choke-points on foot traffic.
As rescue workers tried to extricate the casualties, police shut down the site and ordered revellers out. The Transportation Ministry halted roadworks in the area to enable scores of ambulances and pilgrim buses to move unhindered.
Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions. But lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid vaccination programme that has seen more than half of the population fully vaccinated.