A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed at least 44 people and injured some 150 others early Friday, six of them critically, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. The stampede occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron, the AP reports. Tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather each year to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the stampede a “great tragedy” and said everyone was praying for the victims. Media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people, and videos posted on social media showed scores of black-clad ultra-Orthodox men walking through narrow passages to the site.
Photos showed rows of wrapped bodies lying on the ground afterward, with dozens of ambulances at the site. The Haaretz daily quoted witnesses as saying police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly. Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, said he was horrified by how crowded the event was, saying the site was equipped to handle perhaps a quarter of the number who were there. The stampede happened after midnight and its cause was not immediately clear. Witnesses said a row of people had tripped on some stairs, causing other people to fall and sparking the stampede. “Masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created,” a witness told Army radio. He described a terrifying sight as the first row of people fell down. He said he was in the next row of people that tripped. “I felt like I was about to die,” he said. The death toll matched the number of people killed in a 2010 forest fire, which is believed to be the deadliest civilian tragedy in the country’s history. (Read more Israel stories.)