At least 44 people have been killed and about 150 injured in a crush at a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel attended by tens of thousands of people, in one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters.
Children were among the dead, Eli Beer, the director of an Israeli volunteer ambulance service, United Hatzalah, said. “Unfortunately, we found small children trampled there, and we performed CPR. We were able to save some of them,” he told Army Radio.
The national ambulance service, Magen David Adom, said the injured had been rushed to hospitals around the country. Six people were in a critical condition and 18 in a serious condition.
The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited the scene briefly on Friday, said it was “one of the worst disasters that has befallen the state of Israel” and offered condolences to the families. Sunday would be a day of national mourning, he added.
Permission had been given for 10,000 people to attend the largest event held in Israel since the start of the Covid pandemic last year, but the crowds at Mount Meron were estimated at up to 10 times that number.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews had travelled to the Galilee tomb of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual Lag Baomer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.
The cause of the crush in the early hours of Friday was not confirmed, but witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in a narrow passageway while trying to exit. Footage from the night showed men frantically pulling down corrugated iron walls to escape.
Children were separated from their parents in the confusion. An emergency rescue officer told Channel 12 news: “There are more than 30 children here right now … whose mothers and fathers aren’t answering the phone.”
Israeli television published the photos of seven boys, appealing for help in locating them.
Mobile phone reception crashed at Mount Meron as families tried to reach missing loved ones. A 24-year-old man, identified only by his first name, Dvir, told Army Radio “masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created”. He added: “I felt like I was about to die.”
In one video, a crowd of men could be seen being funnelled through a narrow walkway, with some falling. Another video showed a crush at a barricade.
Israeli media published an image of a row of bodies covered in plastic bags on the ground and videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes.
Local media reported police might have unknowingly exacerbated the situation by blocking the rushing crowds from dispersing, unaware of the squeeze further back.
The commander of the area’s northern district, who oversaw the security arrangements, said the cause of the disaster was still unclear but he held overall responsibility. “For better or worse, and [I] am ready for any investigation,” Shimon Lavi told reporters.
The justice ministry said the police’s internal investigations department was launching an investigation into possible criminal misconduct by officers.
The Israeli military sent medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist with a “mass casualty incident” in the area.
Yehuda Gottleib, one of the first responders from United Hatzalah, said he saw “dozens of people fall on top of one another … A large number of them were crushed and lost consciousness.”
Witnesses said they only realised people had been asphyxiated when an organiser appealed over a loudhailer for the crowd to disperse.
“We thought maybe there was a [bomb] alert over a suspicious package. No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness,” a pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV.
Motti Bukchin, a spokesperson for the Zaka ambulance service, said families were being notified and the bodies were being taken to a single location for identification. He said he expected burials to begin before sundown of the Jewish Sabbath, when funerals do not take place.
In a video posted on Twitter, Dov Maisel, the vice-president of operations for United Hatzalah, said the organisation’s volunteers had seen “very, very difficult sights. Sights that we haven’t seen here in Israel since the worst days of terrorist rage back in the beginning of the 2000s. I have no words. I honestly have no words.”
The event was the first large religious gathering of its kind to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all coronavirus restrictions. The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.
Authorities had authorised 10,000 people to gather at the site of the tomb but organisers said more than 650 buses had been chartered from across the country to bring pilgrims to Meron.
The Times of Israel cited organisers saying about 100,000 people were at the site, with a further 100,000 expected on Friday morning. About 5,000 police had been deployed to secure the event.
Boris Johnson was among global leaders who sent condolences. Describing the scenes as devastating, the UK prime minister, tweeted: “My thoughts are with the Israeli people and those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy.”