Israeli rescue teams carry a body bag into an ambulance on April 30, 2021 at the scene of a stampede overnight during a religious gathering in the northern Israeli town of Meron
TEL AVIV - A massive stampede at a densely packed Jewish pilgrimage site killed at least 44 people in northern Israel on Friday, blackening the country's largest Covid-era gathering.
The nighttime disaster struck as tens of thousands of pilgrims were gathered in Meron at the site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews mark the Lag BaOmer holiday.
Closed last year due to coronavirus restrictions, this year's pilgrimage at which bonfires are lit was expected to be a celebratory event in a nation that has largely re-opened thanks to a successful vaccination effort.
It had been "a tragic night," Shimon Lavi, northern Israel's police commander, told AFP, adding his officers did all they could to save lives, helping to ferry the injured to hospital.
A young witness pointed a finger of blame at police.
"There is an iron ramp going down from the site of a bonfire... It was very crowded... people had to walk down on this ramp in order to exit," said Shmuel, an 18-year-old at the scene.
The police "closed it (the ramp). Then, more people arrived, and more and more... and police wouldn't let them exit, so people started to fall on top of each other", he said.
They "didn't open it (the passageway) until it crashed and all the crowd was blown away to the sides. Tens of people were crushed".
The pilgrimage was the largest public gathering since the pandemic broke out, with reports of three times more participants, including children, than authorised by police.
Initial reports had indicated the carnage began when a section of stadium seating collapsed but rescue workers later tied the casualties to a stampede.
A spokesman for the Magen David Adom, Israel's rescue service, told AFP "there were 38 dead at the scene but there were more at the hospital."
A source at the northern Ziv hospital, one of several receiving casualties, told AFP it had recorded at least six deaths, taking the overall toll to 44.
The rescue service said it was treating 150 injured, six of them in serious condition.
'They crushed each other'
Huge crowds of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered on Thursday to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer
"It took me back to the period of (Palestinian militant) bombings. There was chaos, people trying to save themselves as they crushed each other," Dov Maisel of the United Hatzala rescue services told army radio.
With the launch of an inquiry into the disaster, the regional police chief told reporters: "I, Shimon Lavi... take upon myself the overall responsibility, for good and for bad, and I am ready for every inspection".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "heavy disaster" and said he was praying for the injured.
"The whole of Israel is praying for the recovery of the survivors," said opposition leader Yair Lapid.
The army and emergency services deployed helicopters to evacuate the wounded. Rescue personnel said they struggled to gain access in the packed site.
Scenes from Meron hours after the accident showed an ultra-Orthodox Jewish crowd in distress, the men in long black coats and wearing black hats, and debris scattered across the ground.
Some survivors had lit candles for the victims while other prayed nearby. Israeli media published an image of a row of bodies covered in plastic bags on the ground.
"This is one of the worst tragedies that I have ever experienced," said Lazar Hyman of the United Hatzalah volunteer rescue service, who was at the scene.
"I have not seen anything like this since I entered into the field of emergency medicine," he added.
Yehuda Gottleib, one of the first responders from United Hatzalah, said he saw "dozens of people fall on top of one another during the collapse".
A man checks the personal belongings of Jewish pilgrims, piled up at the scene of a stampede that took place during a religious gathering overnight in the northern Israeli town of Meron naer the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai
"A large number of them were crushed and lost consciousness."
The injured were flown by helicopter to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where funerals are scheduled to be held on Friday.
Israel has fully vaccinated more than half of its 9.3 million population against the coronavirus, but restrictions on massive public gatherings remain in place to stem the spread of the virus.
Authorities had authorised 10,000 people to gather at the site of the tomb but organisers said more than 650 buses had been chartered from across Israel, bringing 30,000 pilgrims to Meron.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known in Israel as haredim, have throughout the pandemic shown resistance towards health and safety measures mandated by the government.
Around 5,000 police had been deployed to secure the event.
After the stampede, police closed access to the area to prevent a crowd from building further, while rescue workers and security forces worked to clear the area and identify the victims.
Health workers on scene in aftermath of Israel disaster