JERUSALEM -- The holiday of Lag BaOmer is one of the happiest days on the calendar for Israel's ultra-Orthodox community -- a time of mass celebrations in honor of a revered sage. But in a split-second Friday, the festive gathering in northern Israel turned into one of the country's worst-ever tragedies, with at least 45 people crushed to death and dozens injured in a stampede.
The disaster prompted a national outpouring of grief as families rushed to identify their dead relatives and bury them ahead of the Jewish Sabbath. There was also anger toward authorities over an incident that experts had long feared, further clouding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hopes of remaining in office.
Netanyahu, who briefly visited Mount Meron, offered his condolences. "In these moments our people unite, and that is what we are doing at this moment as well," he said.
He announced that today would be a day of national mourning and said he had joined the masses of people who donated blood for the victims. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin lit 45 candles in honor of the dead. Messages of condolences poured in from around the world.Gallery: Funerals for Israel stampede victims
President Joe Biden said he was heartbroken and had called Netanyahu to offer support. "The people of the United States and Israel are bound together by our families, our faiths and our histories, and we will stand with our friends," he said.
The stampede started about 1 a.m. as people began to leave and thronged a narrow, tunnel-like passage. According to witnesses, people began to fall on a slippery ramp, causing others to trip and sparking panic.
Avigdor Hayut described slipping on the ramp and getting trapped in the crowd with his two sons, 10 and 13.
"My son screamed, 'I'm dying,'" he told Israel's public TV station Kan. A policeman tried to pull him and his younger son out of the crowd but couldn't move them.
"The policeman threw up and started crying, and I understood what he was looking at, what I couldn't see," said Hayut, 36, who suffered a broken ankle and ribs. "I thought this was the end." He said he began to pray and "simply waited."
Hours later, in a hospital with Shmuel, his 10-year-old, they learned that his other son, Yedidya, had died.
Lag BaOmer is popular with Israel's ultra-Orthodox community. The main event takes place each year at Mount Meron. Tens of thousands, mostly ultra-Orthodox, celebrate to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried there. This year, authorities said some 100,000 people attended.
The crowds light bonfires, dance and have large meals as part of the celebrations. Across the country, even in secular areas, smaller groups gather in parks and forests for barbecues and bonfires.
Video footage from the scene of the disaster showed large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. Witnesses complained that police barricades had prevented people from exiting properly.
"The officers who were there couldn't care less," said Velvel Brevda, a rabbi who witnessed the stampede. He blamed the government for the deaths of "beautiful holy Jews."
According to the Israeli Health Ministry four people remained in critical condition and dozens more hospitalized Saturday.
Bodies were taken to Israel's central forensic institute for identification. Israel's Army Radio said some 40 people remained unaccounted for.
By Friday night, 32 victims had been identified. An unknown number of American citizens, two Canadians and an Argentinian were also among the dead.
In a race against time, a number of funerals were held before sundown Friday, the start of the Jewish Sabbath, when burials do not take place. The death toll at Mount Meron exceeded the 44 people killed in a 2010 forest fire, previously believed to be Israel's deadliest civilian tragedy.
The Justice Ministry said the police were investigating possible criminal misconduct by officers. Experts had long warned that the celebrations were ripe for disaster because of the crowds, large fires and hot weather.
Information for this article was contributed by Ariel Schalit of The Associated Press.