45 people killed in stampede at Israel religious festival, rescue service says

JERUSALEM — More than 40 people died in a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel on Friday, an ambulance service confirmed to The Associated Press.

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Update 11:45 a.m. ET April 30: Medical officials told The Associated Press that the death toll has risen slightly to at least 45 following a stampede during a religious festival in Israel.

The festival at Mount Meron, which was held to celebrate Lag BaOmer, left about 150 other people injured, officials said.

Update 12:51 a.m. EDT April 30: Israeli rescue service Zaka said 44 people died during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron, according to The Associated Press.

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Original report: Eli Beer, director of Hatzalah, said the size of the crowd at the Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mount Meron was large, “four to five times larger” than it should have been. Police were quoted as saying the throng topped 100,000 people.

“Close to 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” Beer told the AP.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had gathered at the Mount Meron tomb of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, The Jerusalem Post reported. The festival includes all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

Magen David Adom, a rescue service, told the Post that 44 people were in critical condition, with dozens of ambulances and six helicopters called to the scene to evacuate the injured. Zaki Heller, a spokesperson for the service, said 150 people had been hospitalized, according to the AP.

“We thought maybe there was a (bomb) alert over a suspicious package,” a man who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV. “No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness.”

“Rabbi Shimon used to say that he could absolve the world ... If he didn’t manage to cancel this edict on the very day of his exaltation, then we need to do real soul-searching.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that the stampede was a “heavy disaster,” and said he was praying for the casualties.

The festival was the largest crowd in Israel since the country began lifting COVID-19 restrictions on the public several weeks ago, the Post reported.

Video from the scene showed rescue workers attempting to set up a field hospital, The Times of Israel reported. Dozens of ambulances were trying to navigate through the crowds, the newspaper reported.

Witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in a passageway, the newspaper reported.

Police sources told the newspaper Haaretz that the stampede began after some attendees slipped on some steps, causing dozens more to fall, the BBC reported.

A 24-year-old witness, identified only as Dvir, told the Army Radio station that “masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created.” Dvir said a first row of people fell down, the AP reported. A second row, where Dvir was standing, also began to fall from the pressure of people stampeding.

“I felt like I was about to die,” Dvir said.

A Zaka emergency rescue officer told Channel 12 News that there was chaos at the site.

“Without getting graphic,” the man said, “I’ve been with Zaka for decades. I’ve never seen anything like this.

“We don’t know exactly what happened, but the result is unthinkable.”