‘The dead were all around us:’ Survivors describe Mount Meron crush horror

For the tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who gathered in Mount Meron on Thursday, this was supposed to be a joyous occasion. It was the first major public gathering allowed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and an event commemorating the end of another plague, some 2,000 years ago.

Instead, it ended with one of the greatest peacetime disasters in Israel’s history, with at least 44 people, including small children, crushed to death and dozens injured.

Witnesses and survivors described the panic and the fear amid an apparent stampede, with many struggling for breath, trapped next to the dead, and waiting long minutes for rescue.

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 Yohai and massive bonfires on the mountainside.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate during a Lag B’Omer gathering on Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

A bonfire lighting ceremony for the Toldot Aharon Hassidic sect was being held at the pilgrimage area, close to Bar Yohai’s tomb. As the dense crowds began to exit, some apparently slipped on a walkway and down a flight of stairs, falling on those below and precipitating a stampede and fatal crushing.

Some 20,000 people streamed down a narrow walkway between two walls during the event. On the ground was slick metal flooring, which caused some people to fall underfoot during the rush for the exit.

Witnesses and survivors described the horror.

“We were going in to see the bonfire lighting, suddenly there was a wave coming out. Our bodies were swept along by themselves. People were thrown up in the air, others were crushed on the ground,” David, a survivor, told the Ynet news site.

“There was a kid there who kept pinching my leg, fighting for his life. We waited to be rescued for 15-20 minutes in this crazy, terrible crush. it was awful.”

“A policeman pulled me out,” Meir, who was lightly injured, told Ynet from his hospital bed. “He protected me and made sure I would not be trampled on until I was evacuated.”

“It felt like an eternity, the dead were all around us,” he said.

Eli Beer, head of the Hatzalah rescue services organization told Army Radio that there were a number of children among the victims.

“To my sorrow, we found small children who had been crushed, we tried to resuscitate them and managed in a few cases to save them,” he said.

“We have to wake up, it’s shocking how many people were allowed to enter,” he said.

Footage from the walkway showed shoes, hats, baby strollers, smashed eyeglasses and water bottles strewn on the ground. Metal railings were torn from the ground.

Smashed glasses and a hat at the scene of the Mt Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)

Video from the scene showed the desperate throngs trying to get out, people frantically trying to resuscitate victims, and long lines of bodies, covered in thermal blankets, waiting to be taken away.

Other survivors described their terror.

“We were walking out, everything was flowing, suddenly it stopped,” a survivor identified as Zohar told Channel 12. “Everyone was pressed up against each other and we did not understand why. I lifted up my head and I saw police blocking the entrance, I shouted to them ‘people are dying here.’”

“People lost the color in their faces,” said Zohar. “I was under the bleachers, I tried to go up toward all the chaos when I heard banging above, thud, thud, and people shouting ‘escape, escape, people are dying.’”

“People fell from above and crushed each other, they squashed each other. people just fell, I will never forget the banging sounds, people flying all over,” he said.

At least 44 people were crushed to death and more than 65 people hurt, including many in critical condition, medics said.

The Magen David Adom rescue service said its paramedics evacuated 100 people, including, 18 in a serious condition, 2 who were moderately hurt, and 80 lightly injured.

MDA Director-General Eli Bin told the Ynet news site that the wounded were being evacuated to 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.

Israeli rescue forces and police at a mass fatality scene during a gathering for the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

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.

Amid the chaos, cellphone networks collapsed and rescuers struggled to reunite lost children with their parents.

A Zaka emergency rescue officer speaking at the service’s field hospital at the site told Channel 12 news that there was chaos at the scene, with parents separated from children.

He said Zaka is trying to gather all the children who have become separated from their parents at the Zaka facility, and bring them together.

“We are trying to locate people who are believed to be missing… to organize a register of names,” he said.

Mobile telephones were not working, he said, and the situation is chaotic.

“There are more than 30 children here right now… whose mothers and fathers aren’t answering the phone.”

“Without getting graphic,” he said, “I’ve been with Zaka for decades. I’ve never seen anything like this… We don’t know exactly what happened, but the result is unthinkable.”

Zaka has a long history of dealing with tragedies, including collecting body parts from suicide bombings.

MDA spokesman Zaki Heller told the Ynet news site that the deaths were caused by severe overcrowding.

Israeli rescue forces and police at a mass fatality scene during a gathering for the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“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.

“There are fatalities, it is a very terrible tragedy,” he said, adding that it was a very complicated rescue effort that was still ongoing throughout the night.

Pictures from the scene showed bodies covered in blankets and bags.

Israeli rescue forces and police at a mass fatality scene during a gathering for the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Video 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.

Video from before the incident showed tens of thousands of people in the makeshift arena, dancing and jumping up and down on the stands to music.

At around midnight Thursday, organizers had estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site, with an additional 100,000 expected to arrive by Friday morning.

Police later shut down the event and were evacuating all the participants. Roadblocks were set up to prevent people from arriving at the scene.

Earlier police struggled to clear the crowds from the scene to allow access to ambulances. Loudspeakers called in Yiddish and Hebrew for people to make way and let rescuers come through.

Israel’s Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who was on one of the stages at the time of the apparent collapse, remained there with other leading rabbis, saying psalms for the wounded.

President Reuven Rivlin tweeted that he was watching developments with great trepidation and praying for those who were hurt.

Netanyahu called the incident “a terrible disaster,” said “everyone is praying for the recovery of the injured,” and offered his support to rescue workers at the scene.

The huge gathering, the largest in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, had already sparked health fears.

Due to the large crowds, police said they were unable to enforce coronavirus restrictions at the site.

Crowds of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate the lighting of a bonfire during the celebrations of the holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Health Ministry officials had urged Israelis not to travel to Mount Meron, worried the festivities could lead to mass coronavirus contagion.

Some 5,000 police officers were said to have been deployed at the event.


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