Even as frantic families waited for information about missing relatives, Israelis began demanding answers from the managers of the site on the slopes of Mount Meron, religious leaders and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had epithets and plastic bottles hurled at him when he visited the scene Friday.
The Justice Ministry launched an investigation into how police handled the event, including witness reports that officers had prevented panicked revelers from using some exits. And Israeli media outlets quickly unearthed catalogues of unheeded complaints from safety inspectors and citizens warning the site was a disaster waiting to happen.
“There’s no country in the Western world where the police commissioner and the minister in charge would not return the keys and resign the day after a disaster like this one,” commentator Ben Caspit wrote on the Walla news site. “The writing was ‘smeared on the wall.’ Now it’s smeared on the ground, with blood.”
Among the urgent questions was how attendance was allowed to exceed coronavirus limits by a thousand-fold despite warnings from health officials that the mutating virus still posed a risk. With the easing of restrictions, Israeli religious communities have rushed to resume the gatherings central to their faith.
Last week, Netanyahu told representatives from United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox political party that pushed for free worship at the Mount Meron site, that there would be no cap on the number of participants and that vaccine passports and other documentation would not be checked, according to accounts widely reported in Israeli media. The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the meeting.
Netanyahu has relied on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties as an essential part of his right-wing governing coalition. He has been criticized by opponents throughout the pandemic for not enforcing public health restrictions in ultra-Orthodox enclaves, which often resisted the measures and saw some of the largest outbreaks.
The reckoning has unfolded as Israelis struggle to comprehend the scale of the tragedy.
Tens of thousands of mostly ultra-Orthodox men and some children had gathered at the base of the mountain to celebrate Lag B’Omer, a holiday that commemorates a Jewish uprising in the 2nd century against Roman rule. The annual festival, which was largely canceled last year because of coronavirus restrictions, is one of the biggest religious celebrations of the year, with pilgrims singing and dancing around bonfires.
Many of the celebrants had traveled by bus from ultra-Orthodox communities around the country, including members of the Toldos Aharon Hasidic community centered in Jerusalem. Videos showed the crowd dancing en masse, bouncing up and down in an ecstatic throng.
But what began as an outpouring of pent-up joy made a horrifically quick turn to chaos in the late hours. Some witnesses said the fenced area was overly confining. And as the crowd pressed forward, some celebrants were pressed against the fencing and became frightened. Then, as some tried to leave the most crowded sections, they found exits closed or too packed to pass through, according to multiple accounts.
At about 1 a.m., after the bonfire lighting, Reuven Lutzkin joined the movement toward an exit. He found his father resting at the bottom of some steps just as the irresistible press of bodies began to sweep them along.
“At first we were stuck to the wall and I told my father something crazy was happening,” said Lutzkin, 30, from Jerusalem. He was eventually able to pull his father through an opening in a metal wall. “People were yelling at me to save them and I couldn’t. I saw death in front of my eyes.”
Other witnesses described celebrants slipping on steps made slippery with spilled liquids, causing a cascade of bodies. In the panic, the crowd rushed toward the gates. Some attendees were trapped and fell to the ground. Many of those crushed underfoot were overlooked until warnings began to air over a public address system, according to witness accounts.
Meir, a 17-year-old yeshiva student in the Toldot Abraham sect, was among those closest to a bonfire in an area separated from many of the dancers. Like most of the ultra-Orthodox interviewed for this account, he spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, and he relayed his remarks through a nearby male friend to avoid speaking directly to a female reporter who is not a member of his family.
After the lighting, Meir said he noticed a change in the tenor of the noise and saw police officers scrambling to remove some of the portable fencing, including sections that separated male and female revelers.
As he ran, he saw hordes crushed against the fences. He watched one barrier collapse and bodies tumble forward. People coming from behind piled atop those who fell first as the music continued to play.
He helped an injured man wearing a torn shirt without shoes or a yarmulke, who was asking for something to cover himself up. The man said he had been pushed on top of a young boy but had been able to drag the child free.
“I wasn’t afraid,” Meir said. “We have a belief that whatever happens, happens for our good.”
Some thought the site, located near the contentious borders with Syria and Lebanon, was under a bomb or missile attack.
“It took 10 minutes to really understand the situation,” a witness told Ynet, a news website. The same witness said that residents of his ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem were frantic to make contact with family members at the scene. Cellphone service in the northern part of the country reportedly crashed early Friday.
Celebrants were still arriving for the festivities as the tragedy unfolded. Shlomo Klein, 26, a member of Toldos Aharon who lives in Bukharim, an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood, was on the bus to Mount Meron late Thursday evening. Around 1 a.m., he received a message saying that something had happened and the event was canceled. He told The Washington Post that he turned around, but no one in the family could connect with his 17-year-old brother, Ephraim Klein.
“People were in trauma because the phone connection was cut in the whole area,” Klein said.
The Kleins were among the lucky ones. Efraim showed up at their home at 7 a.m., having caught a bus back to Jerusalem without any way to connect with his family. But one of the elder Klein’s friends still hasn’t been found. Another one, he said, almost died after lying crushed on the floor, unable to breathe, for 20 minutes.
The U.S. State Department confirmed reports that “multiple U.S. citizens were among the casualties.” At least four were from New York and one from New Jersey.
Kalanit Taub, 34, an emergency medical technician, knew it would be unlike any night of her life when she reached the scene and saw teams running to perform CPR on unresponsive victims as they were being carried out on stretchers.
“Everywhere I looked, in every direction, there were patients, and EMTs doing CPR,” said the Cleveland native, who moved to Israel 15 years ago. “There was a medic going around declaring one person after another dead.”
For hours she treated those in shock, those in tearful fetal positions, those hysterical because a loved one was lost amid the bodies. There weren’t enough body bags, and she was surrounded by cadavers covered by sheets as she performed futile chest compressions, unable to stop until the victim was declared dead.
The tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, at the base of Mount Meron, is a holy site for Jews. Huge crowds at the annual Lag B’Omer celebration are nothing new, and neither are complaints about conditions. Two state comptroller’s reports from 2008 and 2011, first reported Friday by the Haaretz newspaper, detailed numerous conditions that were “not appropriate to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the site.”
Visitors to the site of the tomb had previously complained about the area. Ynet surfaced a tweet from 2018 warning that the path leading out of the area was too narrow and the lighting too dim.
Arye Yoeli, an ultra-Orthodox journalist, said Friday that concerns about the site’s safety during the mass gathering were well known but had not prompted change. “For years there have been warnings of an incident like this at Meron that could end in disaster, and all the activists and organizers dismissed it with a smile,” Yoeli said on social media.
Rubin reported from Tel Aviv. Miriam Berger contributed to this report.