More than 40 people were killed at a stampede which broke out early Friday at a Jewish religious festival attended by tens of thousands of people in northern Israel.
The stampede, one of the deadliest civilian disasters in Israeli history, occurred during the celebrations of Lag Baomer at Mount Meron.
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 it a “great tragedy,” and said everyone was praying for the victims.
Early reports suggested a structure at the site had collapsed, but emergency officials later said a crush had occurred at around 1:00 AM local time (22:00 GMT Thursday).
Stampede started as people slipped on steps
Police sources told Haaretz newspaper that it started after some attendees slipped on steps, which caused dozens more to fall.
“It happened in a split second; people just fell, trampling each other. It was a disaster,” one witness told the newspaper.
Videos posted online show thousands of people struggling to flee the chaos through a narrow passageway as the incident unfolded.
One pilgrim said he thought there was a bomb alert after megaphone statements urged the crowds to disperse. Police then requested the evacuation of the site.
“No one imagined that this could happen here,” he told Channel 12 TV. “Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness.”
Condolences to Israel for stampede victims
Dozens of ambulances attended the scene and emergency services laid out bodies under foil covers on the ground. Helicopters took the injured to hospital, while the military said search-and-rescue troops were also deployed.
Leaders and major Jewish organizations around the world offered their condolences and prayers to Israel following the stampede.
“Our hearts go out to the people of Israel tonight following the terrible tragedy at Mount Meron,” said Jake Sullivan, White House National Security Advisor. “We offer our condolences to the families and friends who lost loved ones in this disaster, and wish a full and swift recovery to those injured.”