More than 40 people have been killed in a stampede at a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel, local authorities said.
The event, attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, ended in tragedy with at least 44 people dead and 150 injured as a result of the crush.
It marks one of the country’s deadliest civilian disasters.
The stampede occurred during the celebrations of Lag B'Omer at Mount Meron.
It’s an event that draws tens of thousands of people each year to honour Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there. It is marked with bonfires, prayers and dancing.
It was the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic – the country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.
Despite the lifting of restrictions, health authorities had warned against holding such a large gathering.
Early reports suggested a panic was triggered when a grandstand collapsed, but this has not been confirmed.
It is thought that as large numbers of people attempted to exit the site of the gathering, they congregated on a narrow tunnel-like passage, which funnelled the crowds into a tight space.
According to witnesses and video footage, people began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway as they descended slippery metal stairs.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted witnesses as saying police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.
Yanki Farber, a reporter with Orthodox Jewish website Behadrei Haredim told the BBC: "Over a thousand people together tried to go down a very, very small place, very narrow road and they just fell on top of each other.”
‘I felt like I was about to die’
“Masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created,” a man identified only as Dvir, who was in one of the first rows of people to fall, told Israel Army Radio. “I felt like I was about to die.”
In video footage of the incident, large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, can be seen squeezing into the tunnel.
Following the stampede, photos showed rows of wrapped bodies lying on the ground, with dozens of ambulances at the site.
Local media estimates put the attendance number at about 100,000 people.
Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, told the Army radio station the site of the event was only equipped to accommodate a quarter of the eventual number of people, and he was horrified by how crowded the event was.
The event ranks among the worst civilian tragedies in Israeli history. At the time of writing, the death toll matches that of the country’s 2010 Mount Carmel Forest Fire in which 44 people were also killed.
Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalised, with six in critical condition- 38 people remain in a critical condition at the site.
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