Festivities Turn to Tragedy as Stampede Claims 44 Lives at Lag B’Omer Celebration at Mount Meron in Israel

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Photo:צילום: מעיין ברבי/TPS

By: Fern Sidman

A stampede broke out early Friday in town of Meron in northern Israel at the annual Lag B’Omer gathering attended by over 200,000 mostly religious Jews. Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer period.  According to an AP report, more than 100 people were injured while dozens of others were listed in very critical condition. This was corroborated by Israel’s main rescue service. At the time of this writing, reports have indicated that 44 attendees have died as a result from being crushed during the stampede. The Magen David Adom rescue service said the tragedy was caused by overcrowding which led to the stampede.

Early reports indicated that bleachers holding festival attendees collapsed which caused fatalities, but that report proved to be inaccurate.

Each year on Lag B’Omer Orthodox Jews gather to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd-century sage and mystic who is buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires as part of the celebrations at Mount Meron.

Other reports have indicated that the stampede broke out near the Toldos Aharon bonfire which is in close proximity to the mount.

The Israel Air Force 669 Unit airlifted many victims to trauma centers. Vois Es Nais reported that Meron has since been evacuated and Kever Rashbi (tomb of Rabbi Simon Bar Yochai) has been closed. Buses are taking around 100,000 people back to their homes, and the mountain is closed for the remainder of Lag B’Omer. Many Lag B’Omer celebrations around the world have since been canceled for tonight.

AP reported that the fatal incident happened after midnight, and the cause of the stampede was not immediately clear. Videos circulating on social media showed large numbers of attendees packed together in tight spaces.

A 24-year-old witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told the Army Radio station that “masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created,” as was reported by AP. He said a first row of people fell down, and then a second row, where he was standing, also began to fall down from the pressure of the stampede. “I felt like I was about to die,” he told the AP.

The Magen David Adom rescue service tweeted that it was treating 103 people, including 38 in critical condition.  AP reported that Israeli media, citing anonymous medical officials reported that up to 40 people were killed, but the Israel National News web site reported that 44 people were tragically dead in this gruesome scenario. Photos from the scene showed rows of dead bodies wrapped in body bags.

AP reported that the Israeli military said it had dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist with a “mass casualty incident” in the area. It was the first huge religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, as was reported by the AP. The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year. Health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering.

But when the celebrations started, the Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yaakov Shabtai and other top officials visited the event and met with police, who had deployed 5,000 extra forces to maintain order. Ohana, a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, thanked police for their hard work and dedication “for protecting the well-being and security for the many participants” as he wished the country a happy holiday.

INN reported that Netanyahu called it a “great tragedy,” and said, “we all pray for the healing of the injured. I want to strengthen the rescue forces operating in the area.”

Israeli President President Reuven Rivlin said, “I am following the reports from Meron with great anxiety and praying for the healing of the victims.”  MK Nir Barkat (Likud) said, “I am monitoring the disaster in Meron with pain and concern. The entire people of Israel pray for the victims.”

INN reported that Deputy Minister Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) commented on the incident as well, saying, “A very difficult incident – we were unprepared for such scenarios.” Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett responded, “An unbearable disaster at the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The entire nation of Israel is united in prayer for the victims.”

Israeli Transportation Minister Miri Regev said she is following the developments “with deep anxiety and pray for the safety of those injured in the tragedy in Meron. My heart goes out at this difficult time to the families of the victims and to the rescue and security forces, who are operating at the scene of the tragedy.” Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said, “The heart breaks in the face of the heavy tragedy in Meron. I pray for the recovery of the injured and strengthen the rescue forces operating in the area.”

INN reported that Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai arrived at Meron following the mass stampede and said that police would launch an investigation.

Israel Police spokesman Eli Levi said on late Thursday night that, “The difficult incident is under investigation, the commissioner is at the scene, we currently have no further details, the investigation is in its infancy and it is still unclear what led to this incident.”

“We are evacuating the roads in favor of the rescue forces. All the people still at the site must evacuate by buses. We are currently concentrating on saving lives and will provide an update later on the investigation,” the police spokesman added, according to the INN report.

INN reported that paramedics from Magen David Adom and United Hatzalah provided treatment to the victims, including several who were unconscious, and evacuated them to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem, Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Ziv Hospital in Tzfat, Poriya Hospital in Tiberias and the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya.

Police called on the public at the scene to arrive at the bus stops and parking lots so that all visitors can be evacuated, according to the INN report. “We ask all visitors on their way to Mount Meron to retrace their steps, the entrances to the site have been closed and visitors will not be allowed to enter.”

CEO of United Hatzalah Eli Pollack, who was called in to manage the on-site dispatch, said: “This was a very tragic incident, and resulted in the loss of life. Dozens of United Hatzalah volunteers participated in performing CPR and providing medical treatment to dozens of people in varying states of injury. Some of the injured were transported to Ziv hospital in Tzefat and to the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya by United Hatzalah ambulance teams.”

INN reported that Chief Paramedic Avi Marcus said: “This was a terrible incident and is one that was very difficult for our responders. Dozens of people were injured, and sadly, numerous people were killed due to the severity of the injuries which they suffered. After the injured were all treated and transported to the hospital, members of United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit provided emotional and psychological stabilization to the many people who were suffering from shock after witnessing the event. This was a mass casualty incident on many levels.”

Dov Maisel, Director of Operations at United Hatzalah, described the stampede in Meron, in which dozens of people were killed and injured, as was reported by INN.

“We just finished treating one of Israel’s worst disasters. A terrible disaster of people who came to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer and unfortunately were literally crushed to death,” said Maisel.

“Many people were hurt, injured and killed here and the volunteers behind us are being gathered together for an immediate debriefing of the psychotrauma unit due to the fact that they were exposed to very difficult sights that we haven’t seen here since the worst days of terrorist waves back in the beginning of the 2000s. I have no words, I honestly have no words,” he added. (Sources: AP, Vois Es Nais, INN)

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Photo:צילום: מעיין ברבי/TPS

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Photo:צילום: ירון בלושטיין/TPS

Photo:צילום: ירון בלושטיין/TPS