Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared Sunday a national day of mourning after dozens were killed and 150 injured at a religious bonfire festival. Medical teams are now working to identify the 45 people crushed to death in the stampede on the slopes of Israel’s Mount Meron, with children among the dead.
Witnesses spoke of seeing a “pyramid” of people who were asphyxiated or trampled in a passageway around 3 metres wide at the crowded event in the Galilee. The holiday of Lag BaOmer is one of the happiest days on the calendar for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community — a time of mass celebrations in honor of a revered sage. On the occassion, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged to the tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Friday for the annual Lag B’Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance. But in a split second Friday, the festive gathering in northern Israel turned into one of the country’s worst-ever tragedies.
The disaster prompted a national outpouring of grief as devastated families rushed to identify their dead relatives and bury them ahead of the Jewish Sabbath. There was also anger toward authorities over an accident that experts had long feared, further clouding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hopes of remaining in office. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the crush one of the “heaviest disasters” in Israeli history and promised a thorough investigation to ensure it did not happen again.