Dozens were killed and over 100 injured in a stampede at a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel, the country’s main rescue service said early Friday.
Israeli’s rescue service officially confirmed that nearly 40 died.
Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, told the station “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.
Magen David Adom said on Twitter it was treating 103 people, including 38 in critical condition.
United States National Security Adviser acknowledged the disaster in a tweet late Thursday.
About 100,000 people were crowded by Mount Meron before the stampede Thursday night to celebrate the holiday of Lag b’Omer, the New York Times estimated.
A Jewish holiday popular with ultra-Orthodox Jews, it honors Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried at the base of the mountain. The tomb is considered a holy site in Israel.
Magen David Adom said in another tweet that all the injuries happened in a stampede. Police sources told local media the stampede started after some attendees slipped on some steps, causing dozens more to fall, reported BBC.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “great tragedy,” and said everyone was praying for the victims, according to AP.
The festival of Lag b’Omer ends Friday evening. Thousands more people had been expected to arrive at Mount Meron on Friday, reported the Times.
The gathering marked the first legal huge religious gathering since Israel lifted nearly all of its coronavirus pandemic restrictions, due to a largely successful vaccination campaign that saw cases drop.
Health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering, AP reported.
The Associated Press reported that the Israeli military dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist with a “mass casualty incident” in the area. It did not provide details on the nature of the disaster.
There were conflicting reports surrounding the incident. Videos circulating on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews crowded together in tight spaces before the incident, and local media shared photos of rows of bodies.
A 24-year-old witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told the Army Radio station that “masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created.”
He said a first row of people fell down, and then a second row, where he was standing, also began to fall down from the pressure of the stampede.
“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.
Contributing: The Associated Press