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AT LEAST 40 people have died and 65 others were injured in a stampede at a religious bonfire festival in Israel on Friday, local media reports.
Multiple casualties and fatalities were reported after a metal grandstand platform apparently collapsed at the overcrowded Jewish festival of Lag B’Omer in Meron just after midnight.
The Times of Israel reported that many had been crushed to death during the disaster as thousands of orthodox Jews gathered for the largest festival held in Israel since the Covid outbreak began.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the crush as a “heavy disaster” as rescuers rushed to free trapped festival goers.
The mass gathering took place at the tomb of a 2nd-century sage for annual commemorations when the structure collapsed.
Videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes as Ultra-Orthodox men clambered through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the crush, as police and paramedics tried to reach the wounded.
Reports are conflicting on the number of people who were injured, with the Associated Press reporting that authorities indicated up to 150 may have been hospitalized in the early hours of Friday morning.
The Jerusalem Post reported that of dozens who were injured, about 44 people were in critical condition, citing Israel’s national emergency service, Magen David Adom (MDA).
Initial reports said a stand had collapsed at one of the concerts – however, rescue services said the tragedy was caused by a crush and overcrowding.
The IDF, which sent its 669 rescue team to the site, said a roof had also collapsed.
A pilgrim at the festival told a local news channel: “We thought maybe there was a [bomb] alert over a suspicious package.
“No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness.”
Netanyahu said, “Everyone is praying for the recovery of the injured.”
MDA spokesman Zaki Heller told the Ynet news site that due to the severe overcrowding, it took some time to help people who had been trapped.
“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.
Other videos from the scene showed rescue workers were attempting to set up a field hospital – and dozens of ambulances could be seen trying to navigate through the huge crowds.
Reports indicate that around 100,000 people may have been attending the night’s events, despite health officials warning that people should not gather in large crowds even as Covid cases were plummeting across Israel.
Around 5,000 police were deployed to secure the event, with the cops urging pilgrims to avoid incidents during the feast when bonfires are lit.
Police said on Thursday that they had arrested two people for disrupting officers’ efforts to keep order at the site.
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This was the first huge religious gathering of its kind to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The country has seen Covid cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.
The tomb is also considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and it is an annual pilgrimage site.
More to follow…
For the latest news on this story keep checking back at Sun Online.
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JERUSALEM — The director of an Israeli ambulance service has confirmed that nearly 40 people died in a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel.
Eli Beer, director of Hatzalah, said he was shocked by the size of the crowd at the Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mount Meron. Police were quoted as saying some 100,000 people were there.
He told Army Radio that there were four to five times the number of people that should have entered a location like this. “Close to 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he said.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS EVENT. AP’s earlier story is below.
A stampede broke out early Friday at a Jewish religious gathering attended by tens of thousands of people in northern Israel, leaving 150 hospitalized, authorities said. Israeli media reported that as many as 44 people were killed and published photos of rows of bodies.
The disaster occurred at Mount Meron at the main celebrations of Lag BaOmer, a holiday when tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather 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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “great tragedy,” and said everyone was praying for the victims.
The incident happened after midnight, and the cause of the stampede was not immediately clear. Videos circulating on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews packed together in tight spaces.
A 24-year-old witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told the Army Radio station that “masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created.” He said a first row of people fell down, and then a second row, where he was standing, also began to fall down from the pressure of the stampede.
“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.
Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalized and confirmed there had been some deaths. Army Radio, citing anonymous medical officials, said the death toll had risen to 44.
Heller told the station “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.
Photos from the scene showed rows of wrapped bodies.
The Israeli military said it had dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist with a “mass casualty incident” in the area. It did not provide details on the nature of the disaster.
It was the first huge 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.
Health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering.
But when the celebrations started, the Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yaakov Shabtai and other top officials visited the event and met with police, who had deployed 5,000 extra forces to maintain order.
Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked police for their hard work and dedication “for protecting the well-being and security for the many participants” as he wished the country a happy holiday.
Netanyahu is struggling to form a governing coalition ahead of a Tuesday deadline, and the national tragedy is sure to complicate those efforts.