Families of victims of the deadly stampede at the Mount Meron pilgrimage site gathered Friday at Israel’s central forensic center to identify the bodies of the deceased.
On Friday afternoon, names of the first known victims among the 45 people killed in the tragedy began to emerge. Israelis were encouraged not to publicize information about the victims on social media until the families receive official word on the fate of their relatives.
The Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv received the bodies of Meron stampede victims and was working to identify them
Yiddish-speaking social workers were on hand to assist the families, many of whom are ultra-Orthodox, arriving to identify the bodies, according to the ministry.
By Friday evening, only 12 of the 45 bodies of people killed in the stampede had been released to their families and first funerals were being held.
This delay in identification was being fiercely opposed by the families of victims, who want to bury the bodies as quickly as possible in accordance with Jewish tradition.
MK Moshe Gafni, head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, called senior police officials to urge them to speed up the identification process so that burials could be held before the Sabbath.
The head of Abu Kabir, which is tasked with identifying the bodies, said the delay comes from the fact that it is “a complicated and sensitive process.”
“The institute’s workers and teams are working determinedly and sensitively to complete the identification process,” said Dr. Chen Kugel.
The Health Ministry said the process involved finding the fingerprints, dental records and DNA tests of suspected victims and checking those against the body.
“We must work responsibly in order to prevent — heaven forbid — dire mistakes. Our hearts are with the families on this difficult day,” Kugel said.
The US Embassy said it was working with local authorities to “verify reports that US citizens are among the injured and deceased.”
“Our consular section stands ready to provide all possible support to any affected US, citizens and their family members,” the embassy said, adding that it offered “our sincerest condolences to the families and loved ones of those injured and who perished in the tragedy.”
Some worried family members turned to social networks to post photos, desperately trying to find the missing.
At least 45 people were crushed to death and more than 100 people hurt, including many in critical condition, in the stampede at a mass gathering to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday at Mount Meron.
Worried relatives gathered at 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.
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.
A spokesperson for the Zaka emergency services group said Friday that the cellphones of the deceased were ringing continuously with calls from frantic loved ones.
“The phones of the dead don’t stop ringing and we see [the calls are from] ‘mom’ and ‘my dear wife,’” Motti Bokchin told Army Radio. “It’s unfathomable.”
The cellphone network in the area, not strong at the best of times, collapsed in the wake of the disaster, leaving worried family members unable to contact loved ones.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that many of the ultra-Orthodox participants in the event didn’t have cellphones, or had devices that were unable to send text messages or connect to the internet.
Bokchin said he hoped all the victims to be identified and buried before sundown of the Jewish Sabbath on Friday evening. But some of the victims families were reported to live overseas, and this and other complications could lead to a more protracted process, other officials said.
The injured and dead included children, Army Radio reported. Many entire families attended the gathering and in some streams of Orthodox Judaism, three-year-old boys receive their first haircuts at the event.
The disaster appeared to be one of the worst peacetime tragedies in Israel’s history, surpassing the death toll of 44 from the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.
More than 100,000 people were attending the annual gathering in the northern Galilee, which includes visits to the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and massive bonfires on the mountainside.
A bonfire lighting ceremony for the Toldot Aharon Hassidic sect was being held at the pilgrimage area, close to Bar Yochai’s tomb. As the dense crowds began to exit, some apparently slipped on the walkway, falling on those below and precipitating a stampede and fatal crushing, exacerbated by a reported police barrier at the bottom of the incline.
Pictures from the scene showed bodies covered in blankets and bags as well as the personal effects and shoes of those trapped in the crush.