But the celebration turned tragic when a stampede broke out, killing at least 45 people and injuring more than 100.
“Our hearts are with the families and the wounded,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, declaring this Sunday “a day of national mourning.”
The event is one of the deadliest non-wartime tragedies in Israeli history. Below is a video timeline of how the stampede unfolded.
LAG B’OMER CELEBRATIONS
The religious holiday of Lag B’Omer draws tens of thousands of mostly ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to Mount Meron — where a prominent rabbi is believed to be buried — in northern Israel each year. The stampede occurred in a passageway leading to the exit of one of several arena-like spaces within the compound, where thousands of people gathered on the stage and in bleachers.
Typically, the mood at the gathering is festive: Bonfires pepper the site as revelers sing and dance. Thursday night started off no differently. Scores of people crowded around the fenced-in site, jumping up and down in celebration. At midnight, the bonfire-lighting ceremony began.
AROUND 1 A.M.
As the night went on, the crowd surged forward, and some found themselves uncomfortably confined, with nowhere to escape. Some witnesses described trying to get away from the crowds, only to find that exits were closed.
Zaki Heller, a paramedic and spokesperson for Israel’s emergency medical service, said that “at 00:49, calls began to arrive for distressed casualties” at the mount.
According to Haaretz, hundreds of celebrants began heading to the exits around 12:50 a.m., when the lighting ceremony ended and dancing began. To get out, they had to navigate a narrow, sloping walkway that had been made slippery by spilled beverages, holding on to one another for support.
Witnesses said some people who were trying to leave the ceremony slipped on the walkway, bringing those around them down as well. One man who was injured described seeing rows of bodies pile up, crushing those at the bottom. A panicked crowd of attendees rushed to the exits, trampling others in their wake.
The mood quickly shifted inside the compound as people who had been dancing just moments before began to realize that something had gone horribly wrong.
Music suddenly came to a stop, and an announcement over the public address system urged everyone to leave the area. “Please, clear all access paths,” a speaker could be heard saying, urging people to make room for rescuers.
AROUND 1:30 A.M.
By around 1:30 a.m., buses carrying celebrants to Mount Meron were being told to turn around. As police shut down the site and paramedics rushed to evacuate victims on stretchers and helicopters, mass confusion spread.
Many initially believed that the festival had been targeted by a terrorist attack. People across Israel scrambled to check on relatives who had traveled to Mount Meron for the gathering, but found that phone service in the northern part of the country was down.
All of the injured had been evacuated by 3 a.m., Israel’s national emergency corps said. Crushed hats and yarmulkes that had been abandoned in the rush lay scattered around the site.
As Netanyahu announced a national day of mourning to take place Sunday, police pledged to investigate how the event got out of control. Meanwhile, Israelis lined up to donate blood on Friday morning as the scale of the tragedy became clear.
By Friday afternoon, officials still had not managed to identify many of the dead. Families whose loved ones had been identified rushed to hold funerals Friday before the sundown start of the Sabbath, when such ceremonies cannot be held.
Miriam Berger contributed to this report.