‘I thought I would die’: witnesses describe panic at Lag Baomer festival crush in Israel

Witnesses of the deadly crush at Mount Meron in northern Israel have described their terror as panic spread through packed crowds of pilgrims who fell over one another as they tried desperately to escape.

A man who escaped from the crowd crush at a holy festival at the Mount Meron in northern Israel, in which nearly 40 people were killed, said that he thought he would die as people were trampled around him.

“We were at the entrance, we decided we wanted to get out and then the police blocked the gate, so whoever wanted to get out could not get out,” he told Hebrew-language newspaper Maariv. “In that hurry, we fell on each other, I thought I was going to die.”

“I saw people dead next to me,” he said.

His story was echoed by others. A man referred to only as David told the Ynet news site that the crush occurred while people were going to see the bonfire lighting. “Suddenly there was a wave coming out. 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 15-20 minutes in this crazy, terrible crush. It was awful.”

A survivor told Ynet that policeman pulled him out of the crowd to make sure he was not trampled.

“It felt like an eternity, the dead were all around us,” he said.

Others described calling to police for help as the crush intensified.

One 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 crush. “I felt like I was about to die,” he said.

The panic at the densely packed Jewish pilgrimage site left emergency workers scrambling to clear the area and evacuate the critically injured. The disaster occurred after midnight in Meron at the site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews mark the Lag Baomer holiday.

Vice-president of Operations for United Hatzalah, a volunteer emergency services organisation, Dov Maisel called the tragedy one of “Israel’s worst disasters.”

Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said “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.

The pilgrimage was the largest public gathering since the pandemic began, with estimates of up to 100,000 people, far more than was authorised. Initial reports indicated that the chaos erupted when a section of stadium seating collapsed but rescue workers later linked the casualties to a crush.

An emergency worker from Zaka, a group of voluntary community emergency response teams, said that parents were still separated from their children and that there was no mobile phone reception.


What is the Lag Baomer festival?


Lag Baomer (the 33rd day of the Omer) is a Jewish holiday honouring Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second century sage and mystic who is buried at the foot of Mount Meron. Bar Yochai’s tomb is considered one of the holiest sites in Israel.

The holiday is held on the anniversary of the death of Bar Yochai, who is believed by some to be the author of the Zohar, one of the foundational texts of Kabbalah. Before he died, he asked that his followers celebrate the date as “the day of my joy.”

The holiday falls on the 18th day of the month of Iyar on the Hebrew calendar and is recognised as a school holiday in Israel. It is the 33rd day of the Omer, a period starting on passover and lasting for 49 days. According to the website of Chabad, Orthodox Jewish Hasidic dynasty, it traditionally features bonfires and parades as well as the pilgrimage of tens of thousands of Israelis and people from around the world to Meron. It is also traditional to spend the day outside, where children play with bows and arrows, which symbolise “the power of inwardness [and] the power unleashed by the mystic soul of Torah,” according to Chabad.org.

“There are more than 30 children here right now … whose mothers and fathers aren’t answering the phone,” he told Channel 12 news, according to the Times of Israel.

“Without getting graphic,” he said, “I’ve been with Zaka for decades. I’ve never seen anything like this … We don’t know exactly what happened, but the result is unthinkable.”

A pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV: “We thought maybe there was a (bomb) alert over a suspicious package. No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness”.

Source Link: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/30/israel-lag-baomer-festival-crush-mount-meron-eye-witness-accounts-describe-panic

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