Israel stampede: dozens die in crush at Lag BaOmer religious festival

At least 150 injured as tens of thousands gathered for festival at Mount Meron

Israel on Friday faced one of its worst peacetime disasters after 45 pilgrims were killed in a stampede at a religious festival, with 150 people injured and families left searching for missing relatives.

Mourners gathered on Friday evening at Jerusalem's largest cemetery, weeping as one by one refrigerated trucks arrived bringing the victims for burial.

"It was a disaster," said Elhanan Mamo, one of the first paramedics on the scene at Mount Meron, in northern Israel, where thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews were celebrating the Lag BaOmer holiday.

A senior paramedic with the Magen David Adom ambulance service, he described the "horrible sight" as he arrived at around 1am to see victims crushed to death under dozens of people.

After police officers and soldiers arrived to clear the crowds, Mr Mamo said teams tried to resuscitate those unconscious and treat others who were seriously injured.

"Within 10 to 15 minutes all the wounded were evacuated and then came the hard part of dozens lying dead," he told The National.

“Children, young, single, guys, not many adults. Lying lifeless. People who walked a few minutes ago, just collapsed into themselves,” Mr Mamo said.

At least three boys were among those killed, the youngest aged nine, according to public broadcaster Kan.

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Children, young, single, guys, not many adults. Lying lifeless<br/> Elhanan Mamo, paramedic

Medics used hundreds of ambulances, while some of the injured were airlifted to hospitals as reinforcements were drawn in from across the country.

The mobile phone network crashed while families tried to contact their relatives on the mountain, police said, while authorities sought to evacuate the area.

A survivor recalled the moment he was heading towards the lighting of a bonfire, a central part of Lag BaOmer celebrations, and realised the area had become packed with pilgrims.

“People were pushing each other,” Abraham told Channel 12 television, explaining that he was among those who slipped and fell on other worshippers.

“People did not know where to start and where to finish and they tried to get people out from the bottom, instead of the top,” the pilgrim from Jerusalem said.

“I managed to breathe and begged people to take me out,” said Abraham, who suffered minor injuries. “It was awful. There were screams, also of people you slowly didn’t hear any more.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the site hours later and announced a national day of mourning on Sunday.

US President Joe Biden spoke to the Israeli leader to offer his "profound condolences".

"The loss of life among worshipers practicing their faith is heartbreaking," he said in a statement, adding US officials were trying to verify reports that Americans were among the dead.

The UAE's Ambassador to Israel, Mohamed Al Khaja, tweeted that he was "very saddened to hear about the tragedy" on Mount Meron.

Israeli authorities had expected hundreds of thousands of Jews to attend the Lag BaOmer celebrations, with festivities including dancing and lighting bonfires on Mount Meron.

The event was severely restricted last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but officials allowed it to go ahead this year and posted 5,000 officers for the occasion.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz said the authorities would investigate “the failures, drawing the necessary conclusions and applying them going forward so that this type of tragedy never repeats itself”.

With more than half the country's population vaccinated against coronavirus, last month Israel eased most of its restrictions and authorities allowed events to take place with some restrictions.

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