Massive pressure at a packed Jewish pilgrimage site killed at least 44 people in northern Israel on Friday, with rescue workers in front of chaotic crowds as they tried to evacuate the injured.
The catastrophe occurred in Meron at the site of the prestigious tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews flock to mark the Lag BaOmer holiday.
Closed last year due to coronavirus restrictions, this year’s pilgrimage was expected to be a celebratory event in a nation that has largely reopened thanks to successful vaccination efforts.
The pilgrimage was the largest public gathering since the pandemic began, with reports that there were three times more people than approved.
Initial reports showed that the carnage began when some of the seats in the arena collapsed, but rescue workers later linked the accidents to a storm.
A spokesman for Magen David Adom, Israel’s rescue service, told AFP: “There were 38 dead at the scene but there were more at the hospital.”
A source at the northern Ziv hospital, one of several who died, told AFP that it had registered at least six deaths.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “heavy disaster” and said he “prayed for the injured.”
The army and rescue services deployed helicopters to evacuate the wounded.
Doctors and rescue workers carry stretchers at the scene of the storm. © Jini Photo Agency via Reuters
Scenes from Meron hours after the accident showed an ultra-Orthodox Jewish crowd in distress with debris scattered across the ground.
Some survivors had lit candles for the victims while others prayed at a nearby wall.
Israeli media have published a picture of a number of bodies covered in plastic bags on the ground.
“This is one of the worst tragedies I have ever experienced,” said Lazar Hyman of the United Hatzalah Volunteer Rescue Service, who was at the scene.
“I have not seen anything like this since I entered the field of emergency medicine,” he added.
Yehuda Gottleib, one of the first responders from United Hatzalah, said he saw “dozens of people fall on top of each other during the collapse”.
“A large number of them were crushed and lost consciousness.”
Opposition leader Yair Lapid lamented the “terrible disaster” and described it as a “sad” night for the country.
Israel has completely vaccinated more than half of its population of 9.3 million against coronavirus, but restrictions on massive public gatherings remain to stop the spread of the virus.
Authorities had authorized 10,000 people to gather at the site of the tomb, but organizers said more than 650 buses had been chartered from across the country, bringing 30,000 pilgrims to Meron.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known in Israel as haredim, have throughout the pandemic shown opposition to health and safety measures commissioned by the government.
About 5,000 police officers had been deployed to secure the incident.
After the storm, police closed access to the area to prevent a crowd from building on, while rescue workers and security forces worked to clear the area and identify the victims.
Some of the injured have been transported by military helicopter to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, rescue workers say.