Dozens of people were crushed to death during a stampede at a religious bonfire in northeast Israel on Friday, rescue services said.
At least 44 people were killed during the event while more than 150 sustained injuries, reported Haaretz.
“MDA is fighting for the lives of dozens wounded, and will not give up until the last victim is evacuated,” Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency service, was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera.
Calling it a “heavy disaster”, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to Twitter and said: “We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties.”
The stampede occurred at the base of Mount Meron, as tens of thousands of people gathered there to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer, a holiday that in part commemorates 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
His tomb, buried at the base of Mount Meron, is considered a holy site in Israel and ultra-Orthodox Jews throng there for the annual commemoration that includes all-night prayer and mystical songs and dance.
Though officials have not spelled out the immediate cause behind the stampede, Haaretz reported that it came after some of the participants slipped on steps at the overcrowded event, causing more people to fall over. “It happened in a split second; people just fell, trampling each other. It was a disaster,” a witness told the paper.
It was the first major religious gathering held in the country since Israel lifted nearly all coronavirus related restrictions. According to media estimates, 100,000 people had gathered for the celebration.
Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, said he was horrified at the size of the crowd, adding that the site was equipped to handle only a quarter of the number who were present.
Zaki Heller, a spokesman for Magen David Adom rescue service, told the Army Radio station that “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.
“We were standing and waiting for our friends, we were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids,” Shlomo Katz, a witness was quoted by Reuters.
It was only after he saw ambulances come out “one after the other” that he realised something had gone wrong. “We just went to the side as the ambulances were driving in and out and we waited until we were able to slowly get out,” he said.
The Israeli military has also dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist with a “mass casualty incident” in the area, reported the Associated Press.