AT least 45 people were killed and 150 injured when they were crushed at a crowded annual religious festival in northern Israel.
The stampede happened at the celebrations of Lag B'Omer at Mount Meron, the first legal mass religious gathering since Israel lifted Covid restrictions.
What is the Lag B'Omer festival?
Lag B'Omer in Israel is a time for outdoor celebrations.
Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the yearly event.
Lag B'Omer in 2021 was to be marked from sundown on April 29 untilApril 30.
From a religious perspective, celebrations are focused around the tomb of the Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) at Mount Meron.
This is located in the Western Galilee near Safed, when thousands of religious Jews take the pilgrimage to Mount Meron to light bonfires.
Why is Lag B'omer festival celebrated?
Lag BaOmer draws tens of thousands of people, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, each year to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
He was a 2nd century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried at Mount Meron.
Lag B’Omer has "become a key holiday in the Jewish mystical tradition,"explains Times of Israel.
The paper reports it's said to be the day of the death of Shimon Bar Yohai, and the anniversary of when he first conveyed the text of the seminal Jewish mystical work, the Zohar.
"It also marks the end of a minor mourning period recognizing the deaths of thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva in a plague," the Times adds.
Tourist Israel says: "In modern Israel, the holiday is mostly marked with bonfires symbolizing the flames of the signal fires from the great revolt which took place in the 2nd century".
This is "when many of Israel’s Jewish population revolted against the Romans, a revolt which was brutally quashed and led to epic destruction of the Jewish communities of the land."
What happened in Israel 2021?
At least 45 people were killed and about 150 injured at the religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews on April 29 2021.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, only 10,000 people at a time were to be allowed to enter the main celebration area around the gravesite of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, explained Times of Israel.
But, media reports estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people.
A stampede began after midnight, when large numbers thronged to a narrow tunnel-like passage during the event, according to witnesses and video footage.
People began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway, as they went down slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.
Stampede survivors have revealed their horror at kids being crushed to death, worshippers left gasping for air and corpses piling up.
One survivor who was rushed hospital told public broadcaster Kan that he was left lying on someone who wasn't breathing.
He said: "There were screams, chaos. I saw children underneath me. The only thing going through my mind was that I didn't want my child to be an orphan."
Another survivor named David told Ynet: "Our bodies were swept along by themselves. People were thrown up in the air, others were crushed on the ground.
“There was a kid there who kept pinching my leg, fighting for his life. We waited to be rescued for 15 to 20 minutes in this crazy, terrible crush. it was awful.”
Israel's first mass religious event since the lifting of pandemic restrictions has become one of the deadliest civilian tragedies in the country’s history.
Festival-goers started to ‘fold’ on top of each other, one eyewitness told Euro News.
He added: "And they were squashed on top of each other.”
Times of Israel told the broadcaster there were still people unaccounted for.
"Its a very difficult day," the ToI spokesman added.
Bodies have been moved to forensic experts for identification, but "a lot of them are young men and a lot are very young”, he said.
Police had deployed 5,000 extra forces to maintain order at the event
Cops were initially investigating the deadly stampede, but the probe has now been shifted to the Justice Ministry because of the scope of the tragedy.
The ToI spokesman also said: "A lot of people are stunned.
"In addition to the horror of 45 people being killed and over 150 being injured there are also other traumas associated with this".
For example the "trauma of people who saw the stampede, of medics who treated them, and of people who couldn't find family members for hours on end because cell [phone] reception crashed in the area around Meron.
"One hundred thousand people were there, so a lot of people who knew them are trying to get in touch with them."
Sunday has been declared a day of mourning.
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