Israel Grapples With Historic Crowd Crush Catastrophe, 45 Deaths
“No one can say they were surprised,” survivors lament. Conditions at the mountaintop site of annual pilgrimage were “a disaster waiting to happen”
Israel on Sunday observed a day of national mourning, commemorating the 45 people who died in a crowd crush at Thursday night’s religious festival on Mount Meron, site of the tomb of a second-century sage.
It is the deadliest nonmilitary disaster in Israel’s history.
Early Sunday morning, the last of the bodies were identified by bereaved family members, who due to the holy day of Shabbat were forced to leave the morgues on Friday evening and return home before identifying their loved ones.
Shortly after midnight on Thursday, a chaotic stampede broke out in a walled-off, slippery, confined complex on the hill. Of the hundreds of thousands of mostly ultra-Orthodox worshippers who packed the mountainside overnight, hundreds were crushed in the ensuing panic.
“It was so scary, I can’t describe it,” Yos, 24, who left the compound shortly before the tragic events ensued, told The Media Line.
“I came for the lighting ceremony (of the celebratory bonfire), but there were just too many people and I thought I had missed it anyway, so I turned back. But it looked like a disaster waiting to happen.”
“Luckily, I managed to join my friends whom I came with, and we put a little distance between us and that passageway where it all happened a few minutes later.”
The total mayhem on the mountain was incredible
“The total mayhem on the mountain was incredible,” Yos recalls. “Ambulances, helicopters, shouts and screams everywhere. We just tried to get away, not to interfere. We had no idea what was happening; rumors were flying all over the place.”
On Saturday evening, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who oversaw preparations for the annual celebration, outraged many when, in his first comments on the tragic events, he insisted that he “was responsible – but responsibility does not imply guilt.”
Over 150 worshippers were wounded on Friday, some still in critical and serious condition.
There were heart-wrenching sights here, people crushed to death, including children
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“This is one of the worst catastrophes ever to hit the State of Israel,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Friday while visiting the disaster site. “We grieve the deceased; our hearts go out to their families and to the wounded.”
“There were heart-wrenching sights here, people crushed to death, including children,” he continued, thanking police and other first responders for “preventing a much larger tragedy.”
“We will conduct a thorough, serious and comprehensive inspection to ensure this does not happen again.”
Yet on Sunday, officials close to Netanyahu seemed to indicate the prime minister and his Likud party members would oppose the formation of a national inquiry commission that would investigate – and possibly recommend personal sanctions against those responsible for – the horrific events.
I don’t know whose fault it is, but no one can say they were surprised. Police, organizers, [government] ministers, even we as participants – everyone knew this whole place wasn’t safe
“This isn’t anything new,” Mendi, a resident of Jerusalem who has taken part in the traditional festivities for over 15 years, told The Media Line.
“I don’t know whose fault it is, but no one can say they were surprised. Police, organizers, [government] ministers, even we as participants – everyone knew this whole place wasn’t safe. If it hadn’t been this corridor [where the stampede occurred], it would have been some balcony collapsing or a fire getting out of control. The danger is always there in the background.”
Lag b’Omer, the Jewish holiday that marks the eventually failed second-century rebellion against the Roman Empire in Judea, draws masses of domestic and overseas pilgrims to the holy northern Galilee gravesite every year, where large bonfires are lit followed by mass prayers, drinking and dancing.
The revered tomb belongs to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a prominent second-century sage to whom authorship of the mystical kabbalistic Book of Zohar is traditionally attributed.