Signs of the night’s tragedy were scattered everywhere. Crushed plastic bottles lined the narrow sloped path, barely 3 or 4 metres across. A metal handrail lay bent, completely ripped from the ground by the force of the crushing throng of people. And, further down the walkway, an unused body bag.
This thin passageway at a Jewish pilgrimage site in Mount Meron, northern Israel, was the scene of a horrific crush just after midnight on Thursday. Crowds of ultra-Orthodox men and children leaving a religious gathering, the first of its kind since nearly all coronavirus restrictions were lifted, slipped and trampled each other in the panic.
Footage from the night showed men frantically pulling down metal sheets lining the alleyway to escape. Despite their efforts, by Friday afternoon, medics had reported at least 45 people, including children, had been killed and 150 others injured. It was one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters.
Levy Steinmatz said he was there with his brother to organise music for the ceremony, called Lag Baomer, which includes all-night prayer, bonfires and mystical songs and dance at the tomb of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
On a stage at the centre of the event, Steinmatz, a paramedic, said that after midnight, he noticed the crowds had grown so big that there was nowhere to move, but he did not realise there was a crisis until he saw a young boy climb a fence from the passageway below. “[I] told him it was very dangerous what he’s doing,” said Steinmetz. “He told me he has nothing to lose because below, people are crushing each other.”
Soon, bodies were being hauled up to the stage – “one person, then another, then another”. In the chaos, police blocked Steinmatz from heading down, he said, but he jumped the fence. “We started to do CPR. One after the other, they had no pulse, there was nothing we could do, and they kept bringing more.
“People lost their yarmulkes (skullcaps), their glasses, their shoes … it looked like a scene from the Holocaust,” he said. “It is shocking to think about the last moments of those who died when people were stepping on them.”
Meir Gliksberg, 27, was volunteering in the canteen, serving food to visitors, when he heard screams nearby and ran out. “I recognised that if in a few minutes they did not do something, people would just die,” he said. “I screamed to people for help, but because of the music and the noise, they didn’t hear me.
“We started pulling wounded people into the kitchen and treating them. We had no rescue equipment, so we couldn’t give them first aid.
“The police still did not realise that there were many dead … I grabbed a policeman and showed him the bodies, then he realised that something serious was happening.”
Permission had been given for 10,000 people to attend, but crowds were estimated closer to 100,000. Hundreds of buses brought people to the area; some had set up tents in the forests surrounding the tomb.
Such huge numbers led to hours of confusion in the aftermath of the crush. Unable to cope with such massive demand, mobile phone reception briefly crashed. Later, once the bodies of the dead were recovered, the phones in their pockets started ringing, according to a spokesperson for the Zaka, a voluntary medical response group.
“The phones of the dead don’t stop ringing, and we see [the calls are from] ‘mum’ and ‘my dear wife,’” Motti Bokchin told Army Radio on Friday morning. “It’s unfathomable.”
In a video posted on Twitter, Dov Maisel, the vice-president of operations for another medical group, United Hatzalah, said the organisation’s volunteers had seen “very, very difficult sights. Sights that we have not 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.”
Even by Friday afternoon, families continued to search for loved ones. Hebrew-language social media sites saw a spate of posts with photographs of the missing and requests to call family members if the individuals were found. Meanwhile people all over the country rushed to donate blood.
Only a few bodies had been formally identified more than 15 hours after the disaster, the health ministry said. Among them were two brothers, Moshe and Yehoshua Englander, 14 and nine.
Compounding the dangers of the huge crowds in such a tightly packed area, witnesses said police might have unknowingly exacerbated the situation by blocking the rushing masses from dispersing, unaware of the squeeze further back.
Israel Meir Cohen, 20, said he had come to Mount Meron most years, except for last year due to pandemic restrictions. This time, he said, police set up barricades. “Every year, they allow the crowds to move freely,” he said. But this year, they had kept people moving in controlled lines.
According to local media, the country’s state comptroller warned on at least two occasions, in 2008 and 2011, that the site at the Mount Meron was dangerously ill-equipped for the huge numbers that attend annually.
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 on Friday said the police’s internal investigations department was launching an investigation into possible criminal misconduct by officers. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who made a brief visit to the scene on Friday, promised a thorough investigation, saying: “What happened here is heartbreaking.”
Others said people should not rush to blame the police. “I think it is a tragedy that happened, not a mistake or negligence,” Zohar Dvir, head of the Zaka rescue teams at the Meron holy site, told the Times of Israel news website.
“Things look tough now. It’s important to say everything will be investigated. It was an effect like dominos of people falling, one on top of another.”