A teenager who was trapped beneath a pile of people at the Mount Meron tragedy described how he thought he was going to die as people around him were crushed to death.
Shachar Ba’al Haness, 19, was brought to Galilee Medical Center after being injured during Lag B’Omer festival celebrations when overcrowding on a bottleneck exit route led to a disaster in which at least 45 people died and over 150 were injured, many critically.
Ba’al Haness told The Times of Israel he was in the midst of a moving crowd of people when the situation went out of control.
“Everyone was moving in one direction,” Ba’al Haness said, and described how pushing started and people began falling over, causing even more of the crowd to lose their balance.
“It just snowballed,” Ba’al Haness said.
He was knocked to the floor as others piled up on top of him.
In the ensuing crush, he remained conscious even as others apparently died around him.
“I saw all the bodies. I saw bodies on me, under me,” he said.
“I thought I was going to die,” Ba’al Haness said, explaining that he was left struggling to breathe for around five minutes, buried in the mass of bodies. In what he thought were his final moments, the religious teenager said he prayed to God.
Eventually, police reached him and began pulling people out from on top of him.
Ba’al Haness said he was eventually brought out to a military vehicle to be taken away from treatment.
“There I saw all the people that the paramedics were fighting to save their lives,” he said.
Despite the enormity of the tragedy and his brush with death, Ba’al Haness said he doesn’t blame organizers or authorities for what happened.
“We need to move on, I saw what I saw,” he said, and added that only time will tell how he will psychologically deal with the experience.
Ba’al Haness said he was expecting to be released home before the end of the day.
Rina Dolinsky, acting head of the emergency department at the hospital, said that 26 patients were brought in during the night, of whom only two were still being kept for treatment of light leg injuries.
In the scramble to accept patients as the scale of the incident became clear, the hospital brought in 200 extra staff.
Dolinsky said most of the victims who arrived were in a good condition but suffering from various forms of orthopedic trauma.
She said that the hospital always makes preparations ahead of Lab B’Omer and this year in particular because of the expected heatwave as well as the danger of people injured from fires.
Preparations, she said, had begun two days before the festival. She indicated she had a “little sense before that something like this would happen,” she said.”It is regrettable that this happened, but we prepared for every scenario.”
The event appeared to the worst peacetime tragedy in Israel’s history, with a death toll higher than the 44 who lost their lives in the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.
Several hospitals opened hotlines for people to search for family and friends who may have been injured — Galilee: 04-9850505, Ziv: 04-6828838 and Poriya: 04-6652211. Police could also be contacted at 110.
The Magen David Adom rescue service said the tragedy was caused by a crush and overcrowding.
A police official said the tragedy was centered on a slippery walkway, with a metal floor, where crowding was at a height.
Pictures from the scene showed bodies covered in blankets and bags, and, later, a video showed rows of body bags.
Large numbers of participants in a concert had been moving through the walkway, which was on an incline, many of them “slipped,” falling on those below them, causing a crushing domino effect, the official said.
Video from before the incident showed tens of thousands of people in the makeshift arena, dancing and jumping up and down on the stands to music.
Huge crowds were attending the annual gathering in northern Galilee, which include visits to the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai and massive bonfires on the mountainside.
The huge gathering, the largest in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, had already sparked health fears.
Due to the large crowds, police had said they were unable to enforce coronavirus restrictions at the site.
At around midnight Thursday, organizers had estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site.
Police shut down the entire event after the fatal incident and helped evacuate all the participants through the night.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Sunday to be a day of national mourning for what he described as “a terrible disaster.” He promised a full investigation of the tragedy.