Nearly 40 people were killed and over 100 injured in a stampede that broke out overnight at a Jewish religious gathering attended by tens of thousands of people in northern Israel, according to media reports on Friday.
The mass gathering was organised to celebrate the Lag B’Omer, an annual religious holiday marked with all-night bonfires, prayer and dancing, at Mount Meron.
The town is the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century sage, and is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world.
The stampede was caused after some revellers slipped on steps, causing dozens more people to fall over, according to police sources.
About 40 people were killed and 103 were injured in the stampede, the Jerusalem Post reported quoting Israel’s national emergency service Magen David Adom (MDA) as saying.
Some 44 people were in critical condition, with dozens of ambulances and six helicopters called to the scene to evacuate the injured, MDA said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as a “heavy disaster”.
The Lag B’Omer festival at the foot of Mount Meron is the largest event held in the country since the coronavirus pandemic began despite concerns about spreading the virus.
A field hospital was set up at the scene. Israel Police and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers worked to evacuate the injured and clear the crowds from the scene.
Phone service at the scene crashed as thousands attempted to contact family members and emergency services. Hundreds of worshippers refused to leave the site and clashed with police in an attempt to enter the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai after the incident, the report said.
Shortly after the incident, police closed traffic into the area and began evacuating visitors from the site.
The IDF said that it had sent soldiers from the rescue brigade and Israel Air Force helicopters to help at the scene.
Since the site was so densely populated, search and rescue authorities say they struggled to evacuate trapped people.
United Hatzalah CEO Eli Pollack told The Jerusalem Post that the incident occurred when large crowds of people streamed into a closed-in complex, leading to dozens of people being crushed against fences.
United Hatzalah is the volunteer-based emergency medical services organisation.
Pollack added that people had come to the celebrations excited that they were finally able to celebrate like they used to after a year handling the coronavirus outbreak, and stressed how the great joy was suddenly broken by the disaster.
MDA forces, including hundreds of paramedics, doctors and first aiders with ambulances, were on standby.
“I had just sat down to eat when I heard the screams; we rushed to help, and then we saw the bodies,” Avi, a witness who helped treat the injured, told the Haaretz newspaper.
“It happened in a split second; people just fell, trampling each other. It was a disaster,” another witness told the newspaper.
According to the Times of Israel, organisers estimated that 100,000 people arrived on Thursday night, with more due to arrive on Friday.
Last year’s celebration was restricted, but Israel’s successful vaccination programme – one of the fastest in the world – has allowed it to lift many restrictions in recent months.
Prime Minister Netanyahu requested that rescue authorities bolster their presence at the scene.
President Reuven Rivlin also offered his condolences.
An investigation has been launched by the Israel Police into the incident.