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National day of mourning ordered in Israel

by JOSEF FEDERMAN AND ISAAC SCHARF THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | May 2, 2021 at 3:35 a.m.
Israeli security officials and rescuers carry an Ultra-Orthodox Jew who was injured during the festival of Lag Ba'omer at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo)

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

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/52lagbaomer/]

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.

Ultra Orthodox Jews look at the scene where fatalities were reported among the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews during Lag BaOmer festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Ultra Orthodox Jews look at the scene where fatalities were reported among the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews during Lag BaOmer festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Israeli security officials and rescuers stand around the bodies of victims who died during a Lag Ba'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. The director of an Israeli ambulance service has confirmed that nearly 40 people died in a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel. (Ishay Jerusalemite/Behadrei Haredim via AP)
Israeli security officials and rescuers stand around the bodies of victims who died during a Lag Ba'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. The director of an Israeli ambulance service has confirmed that nearly 40 people died in a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel. (Ishay Jerusalemite/Behadrei Haredim via AP)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews mourn during the funeral of Moshe Ben Shalom at a cemetery in Petah Tikva, Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021.  Moshe Ben Shalom and several others died and others were injured during a stampede at Lag BaOmer celebrations, a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Mt. Meron, northern Israel early Friday. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews mourn during the funeral of Moshe Ben Shalom at a cemetery in Petah Tikva, Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. Moshe Ben Shalom and several others died and others were injured during a stampede at Lag BaOmer celebrations, a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Mt. Meron, northern Israel early Friday. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Israeli security officials and rescuers carry a body of a victim who died during a Lag Ba'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. More than 100 people were injured, dozens critically, in a stampede at a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel attended by tens of thousands of people, Israel's main rescue service said early Friday. (AP Photo)
Israeli security officials and rescuers carry a body of a victim who died during a Lag Ba'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. More than 100 people were injured, dozens critically, in a stampede at a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel attended by tens of thousands of people, Israel's main rescue service said early Friday. (AP Photo)
Ultra Orthodox Jews make their way out of Mt. Meron, where fatalities were reported during Lag BaOmer festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at the religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Ultra Orthodox Jews make their way out of Mt. Meron, where fatalities were reported during Lag BaOmer festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at the religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Ultra Orthodox Jews pray near the scene where fatalities were reported among the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews during Lag BaOmer festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Ultra Orthodox Jews pray near the scene where fatalities were reported among the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews during Lag BaOmer festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Broken glasses are seen at the site where fatalities were reported during Lag BaOmer festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at the religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Broken glasses are seen at the site where fatalities were reported during Lag BaOmer festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at the religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Israeli security officials and rescuers carry bodies of victims who died during a Lag Ba'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. Israel's national rescue service has officially confirmed some deaths at a stampede during a religious festival in northern Israel. (David Cohen/JINIPIX via AP)
Israeli security officials and rescuers carry bodies of victims who died during a Lag Ba'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. Israel's national rescue service has officially confirmed some deaths at a stampede during a religious festival in northern Israel. (David Cohen/JINIPIX via AP)
Ultra Orthodox Jews look at the scene where fatalities were reported among the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews during Lag BaOmer festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Ultra Orthodox Jews look at the scene where fatalities were reported among the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews during Lag BaOmer festival at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured more than 100 others early Friday, medical officials said, in one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
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