45 people killed, dozens injured at religious festival on Friday morning
At least 10 children and teenagers under the age of 18 were among 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a race at a religious festival in northern Israel, according to a partial list of names published on Saturday, while identifying the victims of the civil disaster Israel’s most deadly continued.
Two Montrealers, four Americans and one Argentine were also among the dead. Two families lost two children each. The youngest victim was nine years old.
Meanwhile, calls got louder on Saturday for the establishment of an official commission of inquiry – in part to assess the responsibility of senior politicians and decision-makers for allowing the mass meeting to take place despite repeated warnings over the years. years on security breaches.
In an initial response, the country’s cabinet minister who oversees the country’s police force defended the way the police handled the event.
The Friday morning stampede interrupted the annual Lag BaOmer festival on Mount Meron in Israel. The festival drew about 100,000 people in the biggest gathering so far this year, as Israel’s vaccination campaign has allowed the country to emerge from restrictions on coronavirus.
When large numbers of people began to abandon one of the festival’s events, they crowded into a narrow tunnel-shaped passageway that descended and ended in a series of steps. The floor became slippery with the spillage of water and juice, according to witnesses. While some in the crowd slipped, those behind them fell on top of those on the floor.
‘A wall of bodies’
Veteran paramedic Yossi Halabi told Israeli TV Channel 12 on Saturday that he “found a wall of bodies” after he was alerted to the disaster at his nearby post. He said it took about 40 minutes for him and his rescue companions to evacuate the dead and wounded from the chaos.
He said it was “one of the worst, if not the worst incident” he has seen in 30 years on the job.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Sunday a national day of mourning. On Saturday night, a vigil was held in Tel Aviv, where people lit memorial candles and the municipality lit the city hall with the Israeli flag.
Israeli media said 32 of the 45 victims were identified before the start of Saturday, at sunset on Friday. Of these, 22 were put to rest before Saturday. The identification of the remaining victims and the burials resumed after sunset, as well as some of the funerals. Jewish law requires a quick burial of the dead.
Sixteen people remained hospitalized, including three in serious condition.
Lag BaOmer is very popular with the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried there. The crowds light fires, dance and eat large festive meals as part of the celebrations. Across the country, even in secular areas, smaller groups gather in parks and forests for barbecues and bonfires.
Experts have long warned that Mount Meron celebrations are poised for disaster due to overcrowding, big fires and hot weather. In a 2008 report, the state controller – a government oversight body – warned that conditions at the site, including escape routes, “put the public in danger”.
The Ministry of Justice said it was opening an investigation into possible criminal conduct by police officers. Witnesses complained that police barricades prevented people from leaving properly.
However, there were growing demands on Saturday, including from retired police commanders, for an official commission of inquiry that could also review the decisions of the political leadership.
In a Facebook post, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, responsible for the police and also a close confidant of Netanyahu, praised police conduct. He said he was prepared to “take responsibility” and answer all questions. “I am responsible – but responsibility does not mean guilt,” he wrote.
According to the guidelines of the Ministry of Health, public meetings remain limited to no more than 500 people. But Israeli media said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured ultra-Orthodox leaders that the celebrations would take place, despite objections from public health officials. Netanyahu’s office did not respond to requests for comment.