Believed to be Israel's worst peacetime tragedy

45 crushed to death, over 150 hurt at mass Lag B’Omer event in Meron

Many in critical condition as ambulances, helicopters evacuate victims from largest gathering held in Israel since COVID outbreak; kids said among dead, injured

Israeli security officials and rescuers carry a body of a victim who died during Lag B'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, April 30, 2021 (AP Photo)
Abandoned hat after a deadly crush during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)
The crowd in the moments before the Mount Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Screen grab)
Israeli rescue forces after a deadly crush during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli rescue forces and police near the scene after a crush killed at least 44 during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli rescue forces after a crush killed dozens during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

At least 45 people were crushed to death and more than 150 people hurt, including many in critical condition, after midnight Thursday at a mass gathering to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday at Mount Meron, medics said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incident “a terrible disaster,” promised a thorough investigation, and said that Sunday would be declared a day of national mourning.

Army Radio reported that children were among the dead and injured.

The event is believed to be the worst peacetime tragedy in modern Israeli history, with a death toll higher than the 44 who lost their lives in the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.

The wounded were taken to the Ziv hospital in Safed, the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, Rambam hospital in Haifa, Poriya hospital in Tiberias, and Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem. By Friday afternoon, 21 people were still in hospitals, several of them in serious condition.

Israeli rescue forces and police at a mass fatality scene during a gathering for the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

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. Efforts to identify all the victims and contact all the families were expected to be protracted, with some living overseas.

The Magen David Adom rescue service said the tragedy was caused by a crush and overcrowding.

A police official said the incident was centered on a slippery walkway, with a metal floor, where crowding was at a height. (The harrowing videos below show some of the unfolding tragedy.)


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.

Israeli rescue forces and police at a mass fatality scene during a gathering for the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

MDA spokesman Zaki Heller told the Ynet news site that the deaths were caused by severe overcrowding.

Huge crowds were attending the annual gathering in the northern Galilee, which include visits to the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and massive bonfires on the mountainside.

The vast crowds were filmed dancing and celebrating.


 

Then came the disaster. “The rescue teams were called to one of the concerts near Bar Yochai’s tomb, where there was a terrible crush near a building. There were dozens trapped on a nearby stand and it took time to evacuate them,” Heller said.

Bodybags at the scene of the Mount Meron disaster, April 30, 2021 (Screenshot)

“There are fatalities, it is a very terrible tragedy,” he said, adding that it was a very complicated rescue effort that was still ongoing throughout the night.

Pictures from the scene showed bodies covered in blankets and bags, and, later, a video appeared to show rows of body bags.

Israeli rescue forces and police at a mass fatality scene during a gathering for the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Images from the initial moments of the unfolding tragedy showed rescue workers attempting to set up a field hospital and dozens of ambulances trying to navigate through the huge crowds.

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.


Chaos as children search for parents

A Zaka emergency rescue officer speaking at the service’s field hospital at the site told Channel 12 news that there was chaos at the scene, with parents separated from children.

He said Zaka was trying to gather all the children who had become separated from their parents at the Zaka facility. “We are trying to locate people who are believed to be missing… to organize a register of names,” he said.

Cellphones were not working, he says, and the situation was chaotic.

“There are more than 30 children here right now… whose mothers and fathers aren’t answering the phone.”

“Without getting graphic,” he said, “I’ve been with Zaka for decades. I’ve never seen anything like this… We don’t know exactly what happened, but the result is unthinkable.”

A Zaka emergency rescue official describes the tragecy at Mt Meron (Channel 12 screenshot)

Zaka has a long history of dealing with tragedies, including collecting body parts from suicide bombings.

He said all the injured had been evacuated from the site.

At around midnight Thursday, organizers had estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site. Other estimates put the number at some 50,000.

Police shut down the entire event after the fatal incident and helped evacuate all the participants through the night. Roadblocks were set up to prevent people from arriving at the scene.

Earlier police struggled to clear the crowds from the scene to allow access to ambulances. Loudspeakers called in Yiddish and Hebrew for people to make way and let rescuers come through.


Israel’s Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who was on one of the stages at the time of the tragedy, remained there with other leading rabbis, saying psalms for the wounded.

President Reuven Rivlin tweeted that he was watching developments with great trepidation and praying for those who were hurt.

Netanyahu called the incident “a terrible disaster,” said “everyone is praying for the recovery of the injured,” and offered his support to rescue workers at the scene.

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.

Crowds of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate the lighting of a bonfire during the celebrations of the holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Earlier in the evening, the Magen David Adom ambulance service said it treated 148 people at Mount Meron during the day, including eight who were taken to the Ziv hospital for further treatment.

Most were treated for fainting, heart problems, light injuries and exhaustion, though two attendees were in critical condition at the medical center: An 80-year-old man who lost consciousness and was evacuated as medics attempted to resuscitate him, and a 40-year-old who was evacuated after suffering an acute allergic reaction.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate Lag B’Omer at a mass gathering on Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Health Ministry officials had urged Israelis not to travel to Mount Meron, worried the festivities could lead to mass coronavirus contagion.

Worshipers seen at the gravesite of the Rashbi, or Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, in Meron in the northern Galilee, ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Some 5,000 police officers were said to have been deployed at the event.

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