An ultra-Orthodox man was being hailed as a hero Monday as details emerged of how he pulled a young boy to safety from the midst of a crush at a religious festival last week that left 45 dead and injured over 150.
Yoel Shlezinger, from Beitar Illit, has for years volunteered at Mount Meron to help with hospitality services, including giving out food and drink to pilgrims at the annual Lag B’Omer festival.
But this year he found himself watching as the disaster unfolded before his eyes and, taking the initiative, did his best to help.
The tragedy occurred early Friday, as thousands streamed through a narrow walkway that was covered with metal flooring and 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 fatal crushing domino effect.
In a video shared on social media, Schlezinger described how last Friday he was as usual helping with hospitality at the festival. In the minutes before the disaster unfolded, he took a few minutes to pray by himself, he said.
Then he heard the screams — “something I am not used to hearing, something that no one in the world is used to hearing,” he recalled.
Shlezinger immediately ran to a window in the metal wall of the walkway where, by leaning inside, he could look down on the people below him.
To the right, hundreds were coming down the slope, he said, and to the left, there was chaos — “something out of this world.”
From his perch, he saw a man fall and even with the help of others struggle to regain his footing. Medics who arrived to attend to the man were unable to reach him due to the crowding, he said.
Shlezinger began shouting at those further up the incline to stop, but the noise from the crowds and the music made it difficult for him to be heard. He also tried to call to police to open more space.
From below him, he heard people calling for water and so ran to bring a case of water bottles, which he then tossed from the window to people trapped in the walkway.
Then he saw a man with his son perched on his shoulder. Shouting down to him that they should save the boy, he tried to reach the child.
“I locked my knee in the window frame and reached down to him. I didn’t manage to grab his armpit, I grabbed his hand and threw myself back in the direction of the window frame,” he said.
Having pulled the boy to safety, Shlezinger said he hugged him for ten seconds.
“He was crying. That was good, it showed he was okay,” he said.
Then he returned to resume his efforts at saving those still trapped inside. When he reached the window he could already see people at the bottom of the walkway tumbling over, but those further up were unable to hear his shouts that they stop coming down.
Realizing he had to get their attention, Shlezinger said he opened a bottle of water and began sprinkling it on the people below, causing them to look up at him.
“I signaled to them, ‘Clear the space, you are killing people,'” he said.
As a result, the crowds began to return back up the walkway, he said, though he stressed it was not his efforts alone but also of the volunteers at the festival who had sprung into action, as well as a police officer who managed to open the door to a side room, enabling people to enter and easing the pressure.
“It seems like the worst tragedy but it could have much worse,” he said. “There could have been two or three hundred [dead],” he added, praising the quick action of those who responded to the unfolding tragedy.
Shlezinger’s efforts to save lives were first highlighted by ultra-Orthodox journalist Ariel Elharar, who on Sunday posted an image from inside the walkway that showed Shlezinger, sitting astride a window frame, above the crowd.
האדם שבצילום גילה תושיה, קפץ על הגדר ושלף בכח עוד ילד ועוד צעיר, לדברי הניצולים הוא הציל לא מעט ילדים מהאסון הנורא.
איך שהשערים פורקו הבחור הזה עזב את המקום ולא נצפה יותר בשום תיעוד.
שמו של המלאך הזה הוא ר' יואל שלזינגר מביתר עילית, תגידו לו תודה.
(קרדיט: מנחם קולדצקי) pic.twitter.com/30oz40ziCs
— אריאל אלחרר (@ariel_elharar_) May 2, 2021
Following the disaster, a picture has emerged of a facility caught in a years-long tug of war between various authorities, religious sects, and interest groups that left it bereft of proper, unified state oversight, even as constant warning bells were being sounded regarding its potential for catastrophe.
The state comptroller announced Monday there would be a special investigation into the incident, Israel’s worst civilian disaster.
The Israel Police has also launched an investigation.