The deadly stampede in which 45 ultra-Orthodox pilgrims were crushed to death at Mount Meron on Thursday night was not the first safety-related disaster to occur there during Lag B’Omer celebrations. Exactly 110 years ago, 11 people were killed, and more than 40 were wounded, when a balcony railing collapsed at the holy site.
On May 15, 1911, Lag B’Omer night, at the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, at least 100 people fell some seven meters from a balcony after the railing surrounding it collapsed.
Bar Yochai is reputed to have died on Lag B’Omer. The date, poignant in the era of COVID-19, also commemorates the end of another plague some 2,000 years ago, which saw the deaths of 24,000 followers of Rabbi Akiva.
Back in 1911, almost four decades before the establishment of the State of Israel, there were no emergency medical forces present. The event was being secured by the Ottoman Safed police unit, the Walla news site noted in a report Saturday on past disasters and alerts at the northern Galilee site, which has become the second most-visited holy place in Israel after the Western Wall.
The railing on the balcony, along with part of the roof in an area where a large number of worshippers were present, broke apart, sending dozens plunging downward. Nine died in the immediate aftermath, and two more died the next day in the Rothschild Hospital in Safed, now known as the Bnai Zion Medical Center.
Fears of further disaster at the annual celebrations were frequently raised over subsequent decades, along with numerous reports that underlined the sense of relief when tragedy didn’t strike.
A 1959 article on that year’s festivities in the “Al HaMishmar” paper opened with the words: “Lag B’Omer passed without disasters. Meron was crowded with tens of thousands in a small area — and no disaster happened.”
This year’s tragedy began at around 1 a.m. on Friday morning, when huge crowds of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims were making their way along a narrow, sloping walkway with a slippery metal flooring that ended in flights of stairs. People began to slip and fall, others fell upon them, and a calamitous stampede ensued.
Forty-five people were crushed to death and more than 150 people hurt.
The state comptroller had warned on at least two occasions that the site was dangerously ill-equipped for the hundreds of thousands who regularly attend Lag B’Omer celebrations there, while an internal police report in 2016 said that the chaos in the site’s management could lead to disaster.
The various reports revealed that the site should not have been permitted to hold more than about 15,000 people. Officials have estimated the crowds on Thursday evening at over 100,000, a number that was significantly lower than in many previous years.
The Health Ministry had reached an agreement with other ministries and agencies to limit this year’s event to 9,000 people, but the framework was never implemented — a failure that the ministry’s Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis protested, in a TV interview the day before the disaster, was “shameful.”
According to the Calcalist website Saturday, an outline plan for the management of the site, which was intended to enable the safe hosting of visitors, was approved in 2018, but was never advanced due to delays over the incorporation of a nearby nature reserve into the jurisdiction of the site.
Since the disaster, several former police chiefs have characterized Meron as a kind of extraterritorial facility where ultra-Orthodox organizers have ultimate control, although the National Center for the Protection of Holy Places, part of the Ministry of Religious Affairs apparently has overall safety responsibility. “The police are not in charge of safety” at Meron, Shlomo Aharonishki, a former police commissioner, told Channel 12 news on Saturday night.
He said there had been concerns for decades about the inadequate infrastructure at the facility, including at the huge tiered outdoor stands where vast numbers of participants gather, and warned: “The next disaster [at Meron] is already on its way.”
Liora Shimona, a senior official at the State Comptroller’s Office, asked in a Friday Channel 13 interview, “Who is in charge of the site?” She went on to say that her office, in its reports, had raised to no avail the acute concern that “no single state authority is responsible for the place.”