Israel religious festival crush kills 45

By Kara Fox, Nick Thompson, Meg Wagner, Melissa Mahtani and Niamh Kennedy, CNN

Updated 3:53 p.m. ET, April 30, 2021
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8:44 a.m. ET, April 30, 2021

Mount Meron stampede is "one of the worst disasters" in Israeli history, prime minister says

From CNN's Andrew Carey

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, visits the site of the Lag B'Omer festival in Meron, Israel, on April 30.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, visits the site of the Lag B'Omer festival in Meron, Israel, on April 30. Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

The Mount Meron stampede is "one of the worst disasters that Israel has experienced" Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a visit to the site.

"Our hearts are with the families and the wounded," he added, according to a specially recorded video for his Facebook page.

The stampede took place during celebrations for the religious festival of Lag B'Omer in the early hours of Friday and has so far claimed the lives of 45 people, according to the Israeli Health Ministry.

“There were heart-breaking scenes here,” Netanyahu said, referencing distressing images of “people who were crushed to death, including children.”

A “large portion” of the victims have still not been identified, Netanyahu said, urging people to “desist from spreading rumors on social media because this will break the families’ hearts.”

Netanyahu declared this coming Sunday “as a day of national mourning" and asked people to “come together for the sake of the families and pray for the well-being of the wounded. 

The Israeli authorities had advised participants not to make the annual pilgrimage to the town of Meron this year in light of Covid-19 risks. Netanyahu said a “thorough investigation” would be conducted to “ensure a disaster like this does not happen again. 

The prime minister commended the efforts of the “very fast police rescue and operation” adding that we “owe them great thanks for preventing a much bigger disaster.”

7:49 a.m. ET, April 30, 2021

Photos from the festival on Mount Meron show jubilant scenes before the event turned deadly

Tens of thousands of people gathered on Mount Meron on Thursday for Lag B'Omer, an annual Jewish religious festival marking the anniversary of the death of an influential rabbi who is believed to be buried there.

But the celebration turned into tragedy early on Friday, when at least 45 people were killed in a crush.

Here's a look at some of the scenes from Mount Meron from the last 24 hours:

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather at the site where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is thought to be buried at Mount Meron in northern Israel on Thursday night.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather at the site where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is thought to be buried at Mount Meron in northern Israel on Thursday night. Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images

A rabbi lights a bonfire at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Up to 100,000 Jews are estimated to have attended last night's event.
A rabbi lights a bonfire at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Up to 100,000 Jews are estimated to have attended last night's event. Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images

Dozens were killed during a crush at the event; in this photo, paramedics and worshipers stand next to covered bodies in the wake of the disaster.
Dozens were killed during a crush at the event; in this photo, paramedics and worshipers stand next to covered bodies in the wake of the disaster. David Cohen/JINI PIX/AFP/Getty Images

On Friday, rescuers worked to transport the bodies of those who died in the disaster.
On Friday, rescuers worked to transport the bodies of those who died in the disaster. Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Broken glasses are seen at the site of the tragedy on Friday.
Broken glasses are seen at the site of the tragedy on Friday. Sebastian Scheiner/AP

A family surveys the scene of the tragedy at Mount Meron on Friday.
A family surveys the scene of the tragedy at Mount Meron on Friday. Freddy Wheeler/CNN

7:26 a.m. ET, April 30, 2021

Hundreds of buses have joined the effort to bring worshipers off Mount Meron

From CNN's Hadas Gold

People wait to be evacuated by buses on April 30 in Meron, Israel, following the Lag B'Omer festival.
People wait to be evacuated by buses on April 30 in Meron, Israel, following the Lag B'Omer festival. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Scores of buses have been steadily making their way to Mount Meron to ferry people away from the disaster that unfolded during the Lag Ba-Omer festival.

At one point on Friday, there was a line of buses that stretched back around 10 kilometers (6 miles), all waiting to travel up the mountain.

From the early hours of Friday morning to Friday afternoon, the buses were completely packed, demonstrating just how many people were in attendance at the event.

Around 100,000 people are thought to have gathered for the annual Lag Ba-Omer festival this year, according to Dov Maisel, vice president of operations of the volunteer-based emergency organization United Hatzalah, who added that those numbers aren't unusual. Up to 400,000 people had attended in past years, he said.

Other attendees have started to make their way down by foot.

6:51 a.m. ET, April 30, 2021

What is the Lag B'Omer festival?

From Amir Tal in Jerusalem

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron on Thursday.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron on Thursday. Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images

The Lag B'Omer festival is an annual Jewish religious holiday marking the anniversary of the death of an influential rabbi who died some 19 centuries ago.

It is the largest annual public event held in Israel.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was a 2nd century sage and scholar who many maintain is the author of the Zohar, the seminal work which serves as the foundational text in Jewish mysticism. 

Every year, Orthodox Jews travel in huge numbers to the town of Meron and celebrate by lighting bonfires and singing and dancing on Mount Meron, where the rabbi is believed to be buried, until the early hours of the morning. 

Another key tradition sees parents bringing boys who have reached the age of 3 into Shimon Bar Yochai’s tomb for their very first haircut. 

The festival was largely curtailed last year due to coronavirus restrictions. 

Despite calls from the Israeli health ministry advising people not to come, huge crowds still flocked to Meron this year. 

Usually only Orthodox Jews make the pilgrimage to Meron, although secular Jews across Israel participate by lighting bonfires.

5:34 a.m. ET, April 30, 2021

Most of the victims hospitalized after Mt. Meron disaster have been released, health minister says

Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Friday that most people who had been taken to hospital after the crush at Mount. Meron “have been released and will be released during the day.”

Speaking at Ziv hospital in the northern city of Safed, where 54 people injured in the crush had been sent, Edelstein said that the quick response by emergency services was “not a coincidence” as it followed Thursday’s annual exercises which prepared them for large scale disaster. 

“When people were called to the hospital in the middle of the night, they were ready,” Edelstein said.

Most of the injuries were broken bones resulting from the crush of the crowd, he said.

Edelstein added that the health ministry had passed on “very clear instructions” regarding coronavirus risks at the religious gathering to the police and the ministry of religious affairs.

6:04 a.m. ET, April 30, 2021

Crush on Mt. Meron is "one of most difficult civil disasters Israel has ever known," emergency service chief says

From CNN's Andrew Carey

Ultra-Orthodox Jews look at the scene on April 30 following the Lag B'Omer festival on Mount Meron in Israel.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews look at the scene on April 30 following the Lag B'Omer festival on Mount Meron in Israel. Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Israel's emergency service director General Eli Bin said on Friday that the Mount Meron crush is "one of the most difficult civil disasters the State of Israel has ever known."

"It is difficult to contain the magnitude of the disaster," Bin, who heads Israel's Magen David Adom (MDA) emergency service, added in a Friday statement.

Following the incident that killed dozens, the MDA provided medical care to 150 people, the statement said.

Bin said a complex security operation had been in place in preparation for the religious festival and that on Thursday morning they had participated in a large exercise led by police. 

“Yesterday morning we participated in a large exercise led by the Israel Police and did not imagine that we would find ourselves in such a complex and difficult event. All the forces acted quickly and with dedication in a very difficult and complex arena, in coordination and cooperation with all the factors,” Bin said in the statement.

MDA paramedic Omri Hochman, who was one of the first to arrive to treat the injured, recalled the chaos: "We arrived and there was a big commotion, dozens of people ran in our direction, they shouted at us where to go and told us that there were dozens of people injured. The sights were very difficult, dozens of wounded lay in a narrow corridor and next to it. Dozens more walked around suffering from various injuries. There were cries of pain, sighs and there were those who lost consciousness and needed resuscitation."
Maor Atadgi, another MDA paramedic added: "We rescued the injured from piles of people and performed resuscitation operations on people who were fatally wounded. Our large forces rescued the wounded, some to MDA clinics and some to ambulances. In all my years at MDA, I do not remember such a heavy disaster."

Every year, MDA forces are stationed at Mount Meron for the Lag B’Omer festival, with hundreds of ambulances, intensive care vehicles, motorcycles, ATVs and unique rescue vehicles and clinics adapted to secure the event, the MDA said.

Calls began to arrive on Friday morning at 12:49 a.m. local time for distressed casualties near the "Toldot Aharon" celebration, near the rabbi’s tomb in Meron, the statement said.

A “multi-casualty incident” was immediately declared and MDA forces from around the country were deployed, the statement concluded.

4:25 a.m. ET, April 30, 2021

An investigation into the disaster has been opened, attorney general says

From CNN's Mike Schwartz in Jerusalem

Israeli attorney general Avichai Mandelblit said Friday that a probe has been opened into the Meron disaster, and that authorities are investigating whether there was any criminality attributable to the police.

"It was decided to start an investigation immediately as to whether there are criminal suspicions on the part of police officers as part of the disaster in Meron," the statement read.

Shimon Lavie, northern commander of Israel Police, said earlier on Friday that he took overall responsibility for the crush.

“I take overall responsibility, for good and for bad. I am ready for every eventuality. The northern police command and transport section were ready for every eventuality. We had security and public safety at the top of the order of priorities,” Lavie told Israeli TV.

“We are dealing with a lot of media and video which are not based in fact and have no connection to the reality. We are collecting evidence to get to the truth," Lavie said.

Lavie added that “police were saving people’s lives, while they were also dealing with this complicated incident.”

Mandelblit said Friday that Israel Police will not at this stage collect testimonies from the officers involved in the incident as part of the ongoing investigation.

The attorney general and the acting state attorney will conduct additional situation assessments and make appropriate decisions based on the progress of the investigation, led by the justice ministry's police internal investigations department.

4:17 a.m. ET, April 30, 2021

Ministry of Health says they are working to quickly identify the dead

Israeli rescue teams carry a body bag into an ambulance in Meron, Israel, on April 30.
Israeli rescue teams carry a body bag into an ambulance in Meron, Israel, on April 30. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The National Center of Forensic Medicine (Abu Kabir) in Tel Aviv said that they are prepared to receive the dead and are able to receive and assist families who will coming to identify their loved ones. 

The institute added that social workers from the relevant ultra-Orthodox authorities and Yiddish speakers will be present, according to a statement posted by the health ministry.

The institute said it is working to complete the identification process as quickly as possible and with increased staffing, adding that the process of transferring the bodies to the institute has already begun.

3:50 a.m. ET, April 30, 2021

"I saw twenty-plus CPRs ongoing at the same time:" responder describes aftermath of crush

From CNN's John Vause and Andrew Carey

An Israeli military helicopter evacuates injured Jewish pilgrims from Ziv hospital in the Israeli northern city of Safed to the central Israel hospitals.
An Israeli military helicopter evacuates injured Jewish pilgrims from Ziv hospital in the Israeli northern city of Safed to the central Israel hospitals. Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images

Volunteer EMT Kalanit Taub, a first responder at the scene, told CNN there was “non-stop people to care for" in the wake of the crush.

Taub described place where the crush occurred as a "horrific scene," and said that there were people giving CPR everywhere she looked.

“Literally, I saw twenty-plus CPRs ongoing at the same time,” Taub said.
“Anywhere you looked, you saw another person doing CPR … it was just nonstop one after another.”

She added that a paramedic next to her was declaring person after person dead. 

Taub, who is also a member of a psychological trauma treatment unit, said she also took care of nearly 100 people in the aftermath of Friday’s incident in addition to performing CPR.

“I was walking around the site for a number of hours afterwards and there were people on the side crying or just staring into space and I helped them process what they were dealing with," she said.

“They didn’t know how to cope with what they had just seen,” she said. 

Taub recalled how the religious gathering went from a joyous occasion to a disaster very quickly.

“In seconds it went from a site where people were singing and joyous, to mass chaos, pandemonium and death,” she said.