At least 45 people have died, many of them crushed to death, at a stampede that broke out at an overcrowded Lag B’Omer event in the north of Israel.
Over 100 people were injured, many of them critically, as medical staff struggled to evacuate people trapped at the scene at Mount Meron.
Police sources said the stampede occurred after some worshippers tripped on stairs in a narrow passage, causing others to fall on top of them.
Large numbers of people had been forcing their way through the area, according to witnesses and video footage.
First responders described scenes of pandemonium, with dozens of people lying on the ground with injuries.
Yet there were also reports of Lag B’Omer festivities resuming even after the scale of the tragedy became clear.
“I was there and inside the bonfire (festival) it was crowded and there were there around 60 thousand to 70 thousand people, no place to move, and people started to fall to the ground, a lot fell to the ground,” said one reveller, Wice Israel.
Another attendee, Shlomo Katz, said: “We were standing and waiting for our friends, we were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff.
“And all of the sudden we saw paramedics from MADA running by, [in the middle of performing] CPR on kids and then one after the other started coming out, ambulances.
“Then we understood that something is going on here.”
First responders said many of the victims had working phones on them.
“It was so distressing to hear the constant ringing of the cellphones of the deceased,” said Haim Spielberg, a volunteer for ZAKA, the emergency response service.
“Tears flowed from my eyes when I saw the words Dad or Mum on the phone screen.
“The rescue and security forces kept removing more and more bodies from the scene.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “heavy disaster,” adding on Twitter: “We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties.”
The event, Israel’s largest post-COVID gathering yet, took place despite Health Ministry advice urging people to stay away.
Tens of thousands of people were estimated to have attended, most of them strictly-Orthodox, to remember Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the second-century sage who is buried there.
A large bonfire was lit and crowds prayed and danced as part of the celebrations.
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