JERUSALEM – A stampede broke out early Friday at a Jewish religious festival attended by tens of thousands of people in northern Israel, killing nearly 40 people and leaving some 150 hospitalized, medical officials said.
The stampede, one of the deadliest civilian disasters in Israeli history, occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron. Tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather each year 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.
Media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people.
Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, said he was horrified by how crowded the event was, saying the site was equipped to handle perhaps a quarter of the number who were there.
“Close to 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he told the station.
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.