Israel stampede was disaster waiting to happen
1st May 2021

Israel stampede was disaster waiting to happen: More than 100,000 crammed into site despite reports from 2008 and 2011 warning it posed ‘danger to human life’ and capacity shouldn’t exceed 15,000 – as Orthodox community lays victims to rest

  • Ex-comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, who wrote a report from 13 years ago, warned of ‘dangers to human life’
  • A separate report two years later, in 2011, also said: ‘The existing situation must be immediately changed’
  • First victims of Israeli festival crush identified as funerals got underway in keeping with Orthodox tradition 
  • Among dead include singer from Canada, a nine-year-old boy and his brother, two Americans and father-of-11 
  • In total, 45 people were killed and 150 were wounded, some critically, during Lag B’Omer at Mount Meron 

More than 100,000 worshippers attended the Lag B’Omer festival in Israel despite reports from 2008 and 2011 warning it posed a ‘danger to human life’ and that the capacity shouldn’t exceed 15,000.

Ex-comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, who wrote a report from 13 years ago, said safety features were lacking in preventing overcrowding and that the site was unable to manage such large numbers, reports the Jerusalem Post.

He also told of ‘dangers to human life’ due to a lack of responsibility. A separate report in 2011 said: ‘The existing situation must be immediately changed – including ending the abandonment and harm to the holy place.’

Safety guidelines advised that a maximum of 15,000 people should be allowed at any one time. Current comptroller Matanyahu Englma said a more comprehensive investigation may be launched after the stampede.

The forewarnings come as the victims of the tragedy have begun to be identified as Israel comes to terms with one of the worst peace-time disasters in the country’s history.

Among those killed were two pairs of brothers: Yosef and Moshe Elhadad, 18 and 12, and Moshe and Joshua Englander, aged 14 and 9; Shraga Gestetner, a rabbi and signer from Montreal; two Americans: Yosef Amram Tauber, from New York, and 26-year-old Eliezer Tzvi Yoza’af; and Shimon Matalon, 38, a father-of-11. 

Funerals immediately got underway in keeping with Orthodox tradition, with large crowds taking to the streets of Jerusalem to honour Rabbi Eliezer Goldberg, a 37-year-old father-of-four, with ceremonies in Bnei Brak for Menahem Zeckbach, who leaves behind a pregnant wife and one-year-old child, and Moshe Ben Shalom, 20.

In total, 45 people were crushed to death during Lag B’Omer festivities at Mount Meron in northern Israel overnight Thursday as worshippers tripped and fell on a packed staircase before others piled on top of them due to the sheer weight of bodies.

At least 150 were hurt including six in critical,  18 seriously hurt, eight in moderate condition, and 80 lightly injured – though some Israeli media reported up to 28 in critical.  

Some witnesses said police barriers had blocked or restricted an exit from the festival site, leading to a deadly ‘domino effect’ – described by one witness as a ‘human avalanche’.  

‘There were just more and more and more people,’ one witness told local station KAN ‘I remember that I lay on top of someone. He wasn’t breathing.

‘There were screams; a mess. Each one trying to get out from the other, but they didn’t succeed in getting anyone out because it was a puzzle. I saw people, children, under me.’

But police sought to downplay blame, amid calls for an inquiry. Officers pointed out that up to 100,000 people had attended the festival, which is far fewer than in previous years but far more than had been anticipated this year amid ongoing Covid restrictions. 

Cops had warned of over-crowding even before the stampede took place, telling late-comers to stay away.

Parts of the site, including an area where traditional bonfires are held, had been limited to just 10,000 this year with barriers in place to try and restrict the numbers.  

Gatherings elsewhere in Israel are still limited to 100 people, but an exception had been granted for Lag B’Omer – a festival celebrating the life of 2nd century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai – which was the largest event to have been allowed in Israel since Covid restrictions started to ease following the country’s world-beating vaccine drive.

During lockdown, there had been friction between the Israeli government and Orthodox Jewish community which continued to hold mass events despite the restrictions – including the funerals of two rabbis back in January. 

Today, Queen Elizabeth II sent the following message of condolence to the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin: ‘I was deeply saddened by news of the disaster at the Lag B’Omer festival in Meron, Israel. My thoughts are with all those who have been injured, and the friends and families of those who lost their lives. They have my deepest sympathies.’

As Israel came to grips with the tragedy…

  • Families separated from their loved ones amid the crush launched desperate online appeals for news, with an American – identified as Daniel Morris, from New Jersey – among the missing
  • A blame game began as festival attendees accused police of erecting barriers which led to the crush, while officers deflected blame amid calls for an independent inquiry 
  • Families were called to forensic hospitals near the festival site to help identify the bodies of those killed as medics warned that many will be unaware their relatives are dead
  • Witnesses described hearing the phones of those killed and injured in the disaster ringing as mobile phone services – which broke down amid the chaos – were slowly restored
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led Israeli politicians paying tribute to the victims before travelling to the site to pay his respects, where he declared a day of national mourning
  • Messages of condolence poured in from around the world as foreign ministers of Germany, Australia, the EU, Ukraine, India and other nations paid tribute to those killed and injured 

People gathered to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer on Mount Meron, Israel, on April 29

This is thought to be the area where the crush began when people slipped and fell on a stairway before others piled on top of them due to the sheer weight of numbers, meaning they were unable to get up 

Hundreds of thousands or worshippers are seen gathering at the festival in May 2011. Ex-comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, who wrote a report from 13 years ago, said safety features were lacking in preventing overcrowding

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men take part in a funeral ceremony in Jerusalem for a victim of an overnight during a crush at a religious gathering in northern Israel that killed at least 45 people. Some witnesses said police barriers had blocked or restricted an exit from the festival site, leading to a deadly ‘domino effect’ – described by one witness as a ‘human avalanche’.

Funerals immediately got underway in keeping with Orthodox tradition, with large crowds taking to the streets of Jerusalem

At least 150 were hurt including six in critical, 18 seriously hurt, eight in moderate condition, and 80 lightly injured – though some Israeli media reported up to 28 in critical

Yosef David Elhadad, 18 (left), and Moshe Mordechai Elhadad, 12 (right), were brothers killed in the crush at Mount Meron

Joshua Englander, nine (left), and Moshe Natan Neta Englander, 14 (right), were another pair of brothers killed in the tragedy

Shraga Gestetner, left, a rabbi and singer from Montreal, was identified among those killed in the crush. He had flown in from Canada for the Lag B’Omer festivities and there were no immediate family in Israel to attend his funeral. Shimon Matalon, 38, right, died in the crush leaving behind eleven children

Israeli Ultra-Orthodox mourners attend the funeral of Nachma Kirshevius. On Twitter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deadly stampede it a ‘heavy disaster’ and added: ‘We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties’

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man weeps at a cemetery in Benei Brak during the funeral of one of the stampede victims

Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi, who signed off on security at the festival, said he was willing to take ‘full responsibility’ as calls for an independent probe mounted, but added that the crush was ‘definitely not’ the responsibility of individual officers who he praised for going into the crowd to help the wounded and dying. 

On Twitter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a ‘heavy disaster’ and added: ‘We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties.’  

Israeli rescue service Magen David Adom said over 250 ambulances and helicopters had been called to the site to help rescue the wounded, including helicopters of the Israeli Air Force. 

The chaos was further compounded when mobile phone services set up at the site crashed, leaving people unable to call for help and separating children from their parents.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was helicoptered in to the scene in Israel’s far north, said the ‘Mount Meron disaster’ was ‘one of the worst to befall’ the country since its foundation seven decades ago. 

Video taken moments before the disaster at the Lag B’Omer festival, in northern Israel, show a huge crowd of Orthodox Jews dancing along to music in an amphitheatre area near the tomb of Rabbi  Shimon bar Yochai

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men take part in a funeral ceremony in Jerusalem for Eliezer Goldberg who died in the crush 

Mourners gather for the funeral of Rabbi Eliezer Goldberg, as the burial was held before sundown in keeping with tradition

Mourners gather for the funeral of Rabbi Eliezer Goldberg in Jerusalem today

A man weeps at the funeral of Rabbi Eliezer Goldberg, who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron

Moshe Ben Shalom, 20, has been identified among those killed during the crush at the Lag B’Omer festival in Israel

Yonatan Hebroni (left) and Yedidya Fogel (right) have been named by Israeli media as among those killed

Menahem Zeckbach (left), was killed after leaving behind his pregnant wife and one-year-old son to attend the festival, while Simcha Diskind, 23, honoured as a prodigal scholar, was also killed 

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man surrounded by other men weeps at a cemetary in Benei Brak, during the funeral of one of the victims on the Lag B’Omer crush

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman comforts another a cemetary in Benei Brak during funerals for the victims of Mount Meron

Mourners break down in tears during the funeral for one of the victims of the crush on Mount Meron in northern Israel

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral of one of the victims of Meron stampede at Segula cemetery in Petah Tikva

What is Lag B’Omer, the festival where dozens where crushed to death? 

Lag B’Omer is a festival that occurs on the 33rd day of the Omer, a 49-day period between the Jewish holy days of Passover and Shavuot.

The day is marked by night-time celebrations including the lighting of bonfires, dancing and prayers that take place around the tomb of 2nd century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Mount Meron, in the north of the country.

The rabbi has multiple links to the festival day.

Some mystics believe that on 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, he revealed the deepest secrets of kabbalah in the form of the Zohar, or Book of Splendor, a landmark text of Jewish mysticism.  

Others mark the day as the end of a plague which killed all but five of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples – one of whom was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Some also observe Lag B’Omer as the day of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s death.

The rabbi’s followers traditionally light bonfires next to his tomb to symbolise the spiritual light that can be found within his teachings. 

It is thought members of the Toldot Aharon Hassidic sect were holding a bonfire lighting ceremony beside the tomb when Thursday night’s accident happened.

Toldot Aharon is perhaps the most insular sect of Israel’s Orthodox Jews, believing themselves to be ‘one organic entity’, shunning all influence or interference from outsiders, according to JPost. 

Other traditions include Jewish men giving their sons their first haircuts, and it is also a day of weddings – with Lag B’Omer being the only day during Omer that the ceremonies are permitted, according to some traditions.

Zionist Jews also mark the event with bonfires, though for a different reason, believing they represent the Bar Kochba rebellions against the Romans. 

‘What happened here is heartbreaking. There were people crushed to death, including children,’ he tweeted.

Closed last year due to coronavirus restrictions, this year’s pilgrimage drew tens of thousands of people who were seen packed together joyfully singing, dancing and lighting bonfires before the deadly crush.

In a cruel irony, the B’Omer holiday celebrates the end of a plague that killed thousands of Talmudic students at the time of Rabbi Bar Yochai.

‘This year, as we continue to inch closer to the end of a modern-day plague, I encourage everyone to find meaning and joy in celebrating the end of a different plague that occurred many years ago,’ a rabbi wrote in the Jerusalem Post before Friday’s tragedy.

Shachar Ba’al Haness, 19, a survivor of the crush, told The Times of Israel that he was among those that fell to the floor in the crush but remained conscious even as those around him were crushed to death.

‘I saw all the bodies. I saw bodies on me, under me. I thought I was going to die,’ he said.

‘We were going in to see the bonfire lighting, suddenly there was a wave coming out. Our bodies were swept along by themselves. People were thrown up in the air, others were crushed on the ground,’ David, a survivor, told the Ynet news site.

‘There was a kid there who kept pinching my leg, fighting for his life. We waited to be rescued for 15-20 minutes in this crazy, terrible crush. it was awful.’

‘A policeman pulled me out,’ Meir, who was lightly injured, told Ynet from his hospital bed. ‘He protected me and made sure I would not be trampled on until I was evacuated.’

‘It felt like an eternity, the dead were all around us.’

‘We were walking out, everything was flowing, suddenly it stopped,’ a survivor identified as Zohar told Channel 12. 

‘Everyone was pressed up against each other and we did not understand why. I lifted up my head and I saw police blocking the entrance, I shouted to them “people are dying here.”‘

‘People lost the color in their faces,’ said Zohar. ‘I was under the bleachers, I tried to go up toward all the chaos when I heard banging above, thud, thud, and people shouting “escape, escape, people are dying.”‘

‘People fell from above and crushed each other, they squashed each other. people just fell, I will never forget the banging sounds, people flying all over,’ he said. 

Witnesses pointed a finger of blame at police.

‘There is an iron ramp going down from the site of a bonfire… It was very crowded… people had to walk down on this ramp in order to exit,’ said Shmuel, an 18-year-old.

The police ‘closed it (the ramp). Then, more people arrived, and more and more… and police wouldn’t let them exit, so people started to fall on top of each other’, he told AFP.

They ‘didn’t open it (the passageway) until it crashed and all the crowd was blown away to the sides. Tens of people were crushed’.  

Motti Bukchin, ZAKA paramedic volunteer at the site told the Mail Online: ‘I have worked with ZAKA for 23 years. Never have I witnessed such a scene so horrific, of such magnitude. 

‘There were bodies everywhere, paramedics administering CPR, so many children, so many people without identifying details on them. 

‘Families came to celebrate and now, their loved ones will return home in body bags. This is beyond comprehension.’ 

Jay Shultz, 44 from Tel Aviv, added: ‘We were at the height of ecstasy and joy, dancing at the largest gathering of Jewish people worldwide. 

‘Then, suddenly, there were ambulances, stretchers, and bonfires were being extinguished as we had moved from happiness to tragedy. 

‘Quickly, the music turned off, and I saw rescue workers carrying away dead and injured.’

‘Earlier I had noticed police were erecting barriers in places they don’t normally put them, seemingly for crowd control. But these create pressure and meant the normal ebb and flow of people was not possible, and when there is more concentration of people this is when tragedy can happen.’

Ten thousand people had been authorised to attend the tomb compound, but Israeli media outlets said 90,000 massed at the site, a figure that could not be immediately confirmed from official sources.

‘There were 38 dead at the scene but there were more at the hospital,’ Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue service said, adding 150 were injured, including six in serious condition.

Another six deaths were recorded at the north’s Ziv hospital.

‘It took me back to the period of (Palestinian militant) bombings. There was chaos, people trying to save themselves as they crushed each other,’ Dov Maisel of the United Hatzala rescue services told army radio. 

At least 44 people have died and 150 have been injured, some of them critically, in a ‘human avalanche’ at an Orthodox Jewish religious festival in northern Israel caused when people slipped and fell in an overcrowded stairwell

Some 250 ambulances and medical helicopters rushed to the site as paramedics tried desperately to evacuate the wounded, but were hampered by the sheer number of people  

Paramedics carry away a wounded man after the crush at the Mount Meron festival site. Witnesses said the site is largely segregated by gender, and the crush happened in one of the men’s areas

An Israeli Army helicopter arrives at the scene of the tragedy, near Mount Meron, to help carry away the wounded 

Ultra Orthodox Jews celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, near the site where dozens were crushed to death just hours earlier at Mount Meron in the north of Israel

Ultra Orthodox Jews give a Jewish boy a haircut as part of traditional celebrations for Lag B’Omer, in northern Israel

A Jewish boy has his head shaved as part of Ultra Orthodox celebrations at Mount Meron, as Lag B’Omer festivities continued on Friday despite dozens being crushed to death just hours earlier

Ultra Orthodox Jews celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba’Omer, near the site of a stampede overnight that killed dozens

With the launch of an inquiry into the disaster, the regional police chief told reporters: ‘I, Shimon Lavi… take upon myself the overall responsibility, for good and for bad, and I am ready for every inspection’.

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, the men in long black coats and wearing black hats, and debris scattered across the ground.

Survivors lit candles for the victims while others prayed. A row of bodies covered in plastic bags on the ground.

‘I have not seen anything like this since I entered into the field of emergency medicine,’ said Lazar Hyman of the United Hatzalah volunteer rescue service.  

Yehuda Gottleib, a first responder from United Hatzalah, said he saw ‘dozens of people fall on top of one another during the collapse’.

‘A large number of them were crushed and lost consciousness.’

The injured were flown by helicopter to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where funerals were to be held later Friday.

Britain, France and the European Union offered their condolences.

‘Devastating scenes… in Israel. My thoughts are with the Israeli people and those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy,’ British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted.

In a statement, France sought to assure ‘the Israeli people of its deep solidarity in this ordeal’.

‘We wish you strength and courage to get through these difficult times,’ tweeted European Council President Charles Michel.

Israel has fully vaccinated more than half of its 9.3 million population against the coronavirus, but restrictions on massive public gatherings remain in place to stem the spread of the virus.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known in Israel as haredim, have throughout the pandemic shown resistance towards health and safety measures mandated by the government.

Around 5,000 police had been deployed to secure the event.

After the stampede, police closed access to the area to prevent a crowd from building further, while rescue workers and security forces worked to clear the area and identify victims.

An image taken during Lag B’Omer celebrations in 2014 shows Orthodox Jews making their way through the festival site

Thousands ultra orthodox Jewish men celebrate Lag B’Omer Jewish holiday at the tomb of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in 2006

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