A massive stampede at a densely packed Jewish pilgrimage site killed at least 44 people in northern Israel on Friday, with rescue workers facing chaotic crowds while trying to evacuate the injured.
The disaster occurred in Meron at the site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews flock to mark the Lag BaOmer holiday.
Closed last year due to coronavirus restrictions, this year’s pilgrimage was expected to be a celebratory event in a nation that has largely re-opened thanks to a successful vaccination effort.
The pilgrimage was largest public gathering since the pandemic began, with reports that there were three times more people there than authorised.
Initial reports indicated that the carnage began when a section of stadium seating collapsed but rescue workers later linked the casualties to a stampede.
A spokesman for the Magen David Adom, Israel’s rescue service, said “there were 38 dead at the scene but there were more at the hospital.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “heavy disaster” and said he was “praying for the injured”.
The army and emergency services deployed helicopters to evacuate the wounded.
Scenes from Meron hours after the accident showed an ultra-Orthodox Jewish crowd in distress, with debris scattered across the ground.
Some survivors had lit candles for the victims while other prayed at a nearby wall.