At least 44 were killed in a stampede at a densely packed Jewish pilgrimage site in northern Israel on Friday, with rescue workers facing chaotic crowds while trying to evacuate the injured. The disaster happened in Meron at the site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews flock to mark the Lag BaOmer holiday. This pilgrimage was the largest public gathering since the pandemic started.
It was initially said that a section of the stadium seating had collapsed but officials later said it appeared that the casualties had been asphyxiated or trampled in a stampede.
The Magen David Adom, Israel's rescue service, reported dozens dead and said it would “fight for the lives of dozens wounded, and will not give up until the last victim is evacuated." Emergency services deployed six helicopters to evacuate the injured. Around 5,000 police had been deployed to secure the event.
Israeli media published an image of a row of bodies covered in plastic bags on the ground. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed it a "heavy disaster" and said he was praying for the injured.
Israel has more than half of its 9.3 million population fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but restrictions on massive public gatherings remain in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Authorities had given its nod for 10,000 people to gather at the tomb but organizers said more than 650 buses came from across the country, bringing 30,000 pilgrims to Meron.
After the incident, police closed access to the area to prevent crowd, while rescue workers and security forces worked to clear the area and identify the victims.