Efforts were still underway Friday to identify victims and connect loved ones with missing relatives after a deadly stampede at a religious celebration in northern Israel killed at least 45 people.
In what is one of the country’s deadliest civilian disasters, about 100,000 people were crowded by Mount Meron for the celebration of Lag BaOmer, a holiday to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second century sage and mystic who is buried at the base of the mountain.
Zaka, one of the country’s ambulance service, confirmed the death toll had risen to 45. Around 150 people were injured with six in critical condition, said Zaki Heller, a spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service.
Zaka spokesman Motti Bukchin said families were being notified and the bodies were being taken to a single location for identification. He said he expected the bodies to be buried before sundown of the Jewish Sabbath, when funerals do not take place. Bodies were later taken to Israel’s central forensic pathology institute.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday briefly visited Mount Meron and said it was “one of the worst disasters that has befallen the state of Israel.” A day of mourning would be Sunday, Netanyahu said.
According to witnesses and video, the stampede began as a large number of people in a narrow tunnel-like passage began falling on top of each other near the end of a walkway. Witnesses said some fell on a slippery staircase.
‘Immense tragedy’:More than 40 dead, over 100 injured in stampede at religious gathering in Israel, medical officials say
Avraham Leibe, who was injured in the stampede, told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that “nobody managed to halt.”
“I saw one after the other fall,” he told the broadcaster.
According to the Times of Israel, internal police and government reports warned of the potential for disaster at Mount Meron.
A national traffic police report said the holy site could not safely accommodate the crowds that come each year and a state comptroller warned “systemic failure” with “many different authorities all involved in its management” could endanger worshipers, the Times of Israel reported.
The Justice Ministry said the police’s internal investigations department was launching a probe into possible criminal misconduct by officers.
The gathering marked the first legal huge religious gathering since Israel lifted nearly all of its coronavirus pandemic restrictions, due to a largely successful vaccination campaign that saw cases drop.
In years past, Lag BaOmer celebrations have drawn tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews. Crowds pray, dance and light traditional bonfires at the holy site.
United States National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan offered condolences to the families of victims and those injured in a tweet late Thursday.
“Our hearts go out to the people of Israel tonight following the terrible tragedy at Mount Meron,” Sullivan tweeted.
Other religious gatherings around the world have resulted in deadly stampedes before.
At least 717 people were killed and more than 850 injured in a stampede in 2015 outside Mecca during the annual hajj pilgrimage, Saudi officials said.
And at least 115 people were crushed to death or died in the river below a Hindu temple during a festival in India in 2013, fearing a bridge would collapse. Two years later, at least 27 people were killed during a Hindu religious bathing festival in the country.
Contributing: The Associated Press