The death toll in the stampede at a religious festival in Israel has climbed to at least 44 on Friday, with about 150 injured – as terrifying videos posted online show thousands of people struggling to run for their lives through a narrow passageway.
The disaster unfolded when the huge throng surged through the tunnel-like passage during the annual Lag Ba’omer festivities at the foot of Mount Meron, according to witnesses and video footage.
People began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway, as they descended slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.
The footage shows large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. Witnesses told the Haaretz that police barricades prevented people from exiting quickly.
Avraham Leibe told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that a crush of people trying to descend the mountain caused a “general bedlam” on a slippery metal slope followed by stairs.
“Nobody managed to halt,” he said from his hospital bed. “I saw one after the other fall.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement Friday morning that he was “heartbroken by the tragedy.”
“The loss of life as thousands celebrated a joyous holiday is devastating. New York sends its thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims and to the people of Israel and the Jewish community worldwide who are reeling from this horrific incident,” he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced at the scene that Sunday would be marked a “day of national mourning,” the Times of Israel reported.
“There were heartbreaking scenes here. People who were crushed to death, including children,” he said. “Many of the dead have yet to be identified, and I ask not to spread rumors on social networks because it breaks the families’ hearts. Let the authorities work.”
He also praised the first-responders, whose “fast work” prevented “a much larger disaster,” adding: “We will carry out a comprehensive, serious, detailed investigation to ensure this kind of disaster never happens again.”
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana called for an independent investigation.
“A terrible disaster occurred last night. It is clear that an independent investigation will be needed for all aspects related to the planning of the event, preparations, responsibilities, infrastructure, etc.,” Ohana said, according to the news outlet.
One of the wounded described the harrowing minutes of the stampede.
“There were many people on me. And we slipped one onto another, more and more and more people, until the police decided to just pull the fences down and start to rescue people,” the man told Kan public broadcaster at a hospital.
“It took time, and in the meantime I remember I was lying on someone and he wasn’t breathing,” he said, according to the Times of Israel.
“There was a point where someone just wanted to move, so he shoved a fist to here (indicating his face) and I felt myself stopping to breathe, and I said to him, I screamed, ‘Help me! Move your hand!’ and I screamed to people, ‘I have a kid at home, help me!’” he added.
“Nobody knew what to do. They threw water from above, that’s all there was to do at that point.”
Eli Beer, founder of the United Hatzalah emergency services, told Army Radio that rescuers also found young children and saved some by performing CPR.
“We need to wake up. I’m shocked by the amount of people who were let in,” he said.
Zaki Heller, a spokesman for Magen David Adom, Israel’s version of the Red Cross, said people were crushed without being able to escape.
“Some of the wounded are still being treated at the scene,” he said, according to the Maariv daily.
The tragedy occurred at the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.
Lag Ba’omer draws tens of thousands of people, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, each year to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there.
Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations. This year, media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people.
With Post wires