At least, 45 people were killed and more than 150 injured in a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel, medical officials said Friday. It was one of the country’s deadliest civilian disasters.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said children were among the dead and described it as one of the “heaviest disasters” to befall Israel, as he visited the scene.
“There were heartbreaking sights here, people crushed to death including children,” Netanyahu said. “A large proportion of those who have perished have not yet been identified … This is tearing up the hearts of families.”
Video posted on social media appeared to show angry crowds jeering at Netanyahu during his visit as they blamed his government and the police for the disaster.
Netanyahu said a thorough investigation would be conducted and declared a national day of mourning on Sunday.
President Joe Biden said he had spoken with Netanyahu on Friday and offered U.S. assistance.
“The United States stands with the people of Israel, and with Jewish communities the world over, in mourning the terrible tragedy at Mount Meron,” Biden said in a statement.
“The loss of life among worshipers practicing their faith is heartbreaking.”
He added that the U.S. was also “working to confirm reports that American citizens may have lost their lives or been wounded,” in the disaster.
Most of the dead had not yet been identified by late Friday afternoon and police asked family members to provide pictures and personal information of those who attended the festival, to help with the process.
A U.S. Embassy spokesperson told NBC News it was working with Israeli authorities to verify reports that U.S. citizens were among the dead and injured.
Earlier both White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted their condolences.
The stampede occurred during celebrations of Lag BaOmer, at Mount Meron, the resting place of a second century sage and Jewish mystic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Each year, tens of thousands of people — mostly Ultra-Orthodox Jews— throng to the area to celebrate the rabbi and light bonfires as part of the celebrations. The event was the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Magen David Adom, Israel’s national medical emergency services, said it received a call about a stampede at Mount Meron at 12:50 a.m. Friday (5:50 p.m. Thursday ET).
Stills from drone video taken of the event Thursday showed what appeared to be thousands of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, gathering for the festivities.
“People came to celebrate Lag BaOmer and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and unfortunately were literally crushed to death,” said Dov Maisel, of United Hatzalah, an Israeli volunteer emergency medical services organization that was on the scene.