In the early hours of April 30th, at least 44 people were crushed to death in a stampede at an over-crowded religious bonfire festival in Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as a “heavy disaster”.
The stampede happened as tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged to the Galilee tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shim Bar Yochai for annual Lag B’Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.
Witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in a tightly packed passageway.
Times of Israel puts the number of injured around at least 65, while Magen David Adom, Israeli emergency services’ organization claimed that 24 of those injured were in critical condition. Six helicopters were sent over to address the situation.
The outlet cited a police official as saying “dozens of participants in a concert had ‘slipped,’ falling on those below them in the stands and causing a crushing domino effect.”
Other reports have said the crush was caused after “a section of stadium seating had collapsed at the event site,” and many were killed as a result of asphyxiation after it was set off.
Footage recorded before the crush showed the thousands-strong participants dancing, reveling, and jumping on stands at, what the newspaper identified as, a “makeshift arena.”
Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, said he was horrified by how crowded the event was, saying the site was equipped to handle perhaps a quarter of the number who were there.
“Close to 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he told the station.
Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalized, several dozen in serious or critical condition in a radio interview.
Heller told the station “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.
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 did not provide details on the nature of the disaster.
It was the first huge religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
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 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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is struggling to form a new parliament coalition, and this incident is sure to impede those efforts.