The roads to Mount Meron in northern Israel began to fill with traffic early Thursday afternoon as tens of thousands of people made their way to the pilgrimage site said to be the burial place of the famed 2nd Century sage and mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who is reputed to have died on Lag B’Omer.
Last year, the government ordered police to seal off the site for the duration of the Lag B’Omer festival to prevent gatherings amid fears of a fresh outbreak of the coronavirus.
This year’s celebration of Lag B’Omer — which among other traditions commemorates the end of another plague some 2,000 years ago, that which saw the deaths of 24,000 followers of Rabbi Akiva — was the first major public gathering allowed since the start of the pandemic, with most major restrictions now removed due to the success of Israel’s vaccination drive.
By nightfall Thursday, when Lag B’Omer bonfires are traditionally lit, an estimated 25,000 people, mainly ultra-Orthodox pilgrims, had gathered at the tomb, Israel’s second most visited pilgrimage site after Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
That number, according to media reports, steadily rose in the subsequent hours until swelling by midnight to over 100,000, according to some estimates.
It was among those mass crowds, as the main bonfire lighting event ended, that a deadly crushing stampede occurred, causing one of the worst peacetime disasters in Israel’s history.
At least 44 people were crushed to death and more than 150 people hurt, including many in critical condition.
The incident took place shortly after a bonfire lighting ceremony for the Toldot Aharon Hassidic sect held at the pilgrimage area, close to Bar Yochai’s tomb.
Video from the celebration showed tens of thousands of people in the makeshift arena, dancing and jumping up and down on the stands to music.
לכבוד התנא: עשרות אלפים בהדלקה המרכזית של תולדות אהרן שמרעידה את הההר מצד לצד pic.twitter.com/b2pMQsXv1z
— משה ויסברג (@moshe_nayes) April 29, 2021
But at the end of the ceremony, as the dense crowds began to exit, some 20,000 people streamed down a narrow, steep walkway toward the exit of the site.
Video of the walkway, moments before the deadly crush, shows thousands of people packed together, with some visibly carried off their feet as the crowd moved through the passage.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) April 29, 2021
According to reports, the ground of the walkway was covered with slick metal flooring that may have been wet, causing some people to fall underfoot during the rush for the exit.
Some apparently fell on the walkway and down a flight of stairs at its end, toppling onto those below and precipitating a stampede and fatal crushing domino effect.
Eyewitnesses accused police of blocking a key exit route at the bottom of the narrow walkway, which had for years been seen as a dangerous potential bottleneck.
“There’s an aluminum-floored walkway, then a stairway, and then there was a barrier,” said Eli Pollack, the head of the United Hatzalah emergency rescue service. “It was a death trap.”
It wasn’t immediately clear why police may have prevented some people from leaving the scene as the disaster began to unfold — a move which would have reduced pressure on the packed crowd — but officers were apparently unaware of the severity of the situation and were trying to keep some areas clear of congregants.
Footage from the scene shows police at one point ripping off metal barriers in order to enable people to escape and to widen the passageway.
Witnesses and survivors described the panic and the fear amid the stampede, with many struggling for breath, trapped next to the dead, and waiting long minutes for rescue.
“We were walking out, everything was flowing, suddenly it stopped,” a survivor identified as Zohar told Channel 12. “Everyone was pressed up against each other and we did not understand why. I lifted up my head and I saw police blocking the entrance, I shouted to them ‘people are dying here.’”
Another survivor said from a hospital bed that he slipped on the walkway before being trampled. He was trapped under the crowd for some 10 minutes before first responders cleared the crowd and began treating him, he said.
“I felt someone push me, he just wanted to move, he punched me. I felt that I couldn’t breathe,” the man told the Kan public broadcaster. “No one knew what to do.”
“It started with very heavy crowding. There were a lot of people on top of me. I was lying on someone else who wasn’t breathing. There were screams, chaos. I saw children underneath me. The only thing going through my mind was that I didn’t want my child to be an orphan.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.