The identification of bodies from the deadly stampede during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron resumed Saturday night, with numerous funerals taking place after Shabbat ended.
Before Shabbat began Friday night, 32 of the 45 bodies were formally identified at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv, and 22 released to relatives for burial. Funerals were held for 13 of the victims. The institute halted the identification process in the evening following a ruling from the chief rabbi that it could not continue on the Sabbath.
Jewish tradition calls for the dead to be buried as soon as possible. Families whose loved ones were positively identified rushed to do so Friday before the Jewish day of rest began, with hundreds in attendance at many of the services.
As the forensic institute continued its identification process Saturday night, more funerals were getting underway in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Bnei Brak, cities that were home to many of the dead. Three people were also set to be buried at Mt. Meron, according to Channel 12.
Avigdor Hayut, a Bnei Brak resident who was hurt in the stampede, was to be released from the hospital to attend the funeral of his 13-year-old son Yedidia. Hayut said Yedidia’s funeral had initially been set to take place on Friday but authorities had accidentally released a different boy’s body for the burial.
Sixteen people remained hospitalized on Saturday after the deadly stampede at Meron, with a number of them in critical or serious condition. The condition of several people hurt in the crush improved over the weekend. A 52-year-old man who was seriously injured returned to full consciousness at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. At the same hospital, the condition of an 11-year-old boy who was seriously injured also improved.
According to Channel 12, over the weekend some 10,000 ultra-Orthodox worshippers were present at the mountainside holy site where the disaster unfolded, the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, despite the tragedy. Some 30,000 had been planning to spend the weekend at the holy site — a place of pilgrimage throughout the year — but most went home after the disaster.
The network said police fear that tens of thousands of people could flock to Mount Meron in the coming week to pay tribute to those killed and hurt. The concern is that this could lead to even more people being hurt, Channel 12 news reported, and police were therefore bolstering their deployment at the site.
Some 300 buses were dispatched to the mountain on Saturday night to take home the thousands of worshipers who remained there.
With 45 dead and dozens injured, the disaster in the early hours of Friday is believed to be the worst peacetime tragedy in Israel’s history, surpassing the death toll of 44 from the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.
The victims included many children and teens, including two sets of brothers, as well as young fathers and rabbis. They included at least nine foreign citizens, among them six Americans, two Canadians and an Argentinian.
More than 100,000 people were attending the annual gathering in the northern Galilee, which includes visits to the gravesite Bar Yochai and massive bonfires on the mountainside. A bonfire lighting ceremony for the Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect was being held at the pilgrimage area, close to Bar Yochai’s tomb.
As the dense crowds began to exit, a narrow, sloping walkway on the exit route became immensely congested, people slipped on the metal floor and others fell on them, precipitating a stampede and fatal crushing, exacerbated by a reported police barrier at the bottom of the incline.
As the initial shock and horror over the deadly crush began to subside, focus started to turn on Friday toward the matter of who was to blame for the packed conditions at the site and the security dangers. Two state comptroller reports highlighting that the Mount Merom site was radically unprepared for the huge numbers attending the annual festivities, in 2008 and 2011, were ignored, as was a 2016 police report that sounded similar warnings.
The site, the second most visited religious site in Israel after the Western Wall, appears to have become a kind of extraterritorial zone, multiple reports indicated Friday, with separate ultra-Orthodox sects organizing their own events, and their own access arrangements, no overall supervision, and police routinely pressured by government ministers and ultra-Orthodox politicians not to object.
A framework drawn up by Health Ministry officials, police and other government officials to restrict this year’s event to 9,000 participants was agreed by all parties, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s head of public medicine, said a day before the event. But it was not put into place, she said, “because no one would take responsibility for enforcement.” The agreement was not brought to the government for approval because of infighting among ministers on other matters, including a major dispute over the appointment of a justice minister. She called this failure “shameful.”
Questions will likely be directed at political, civil and law enforcement officials involved in planning, approving and securing the event, amid talk of a potential state commission of inquiry to thoroughly investigate the disaster.