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April 30, 2021

Israeli investigators are examining what caused a stampede that killed at least 44 worshipers at a mass religious gathering in Mount Meron overnight.

Thousands of worshipers had crowded onto the mountain burial site to celebrate the Lag B'Omer holiday, an annual event to pay homage to second-century Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shim Bar Yochai.

But in the early hours of Friday morning, singing and dancing erupted into chaos, as a huge wave of people trapped others beneath them, including children, witnesses told Reuters.

"We were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of the sudden we saw paramedics from MADA running by, like mid-CPR on kids, and then one after the other started coming out," said Shlomo Katz.

Another attendee, Wice Israel, said he saw people falling to the ground. "It was crowded and there were there around 60,000 to 70,000 people, no place to move, and people started to fall to the ground, a lot fell to the ground," he said.

Dov Maisel, Vice President of Operations, of volunteer-based emergency organization United Hatzalah said that an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people had been on the mountain.

He said thousands of people tightly packed in a small area had fallen a staircase and crushed each other.

"Overall they usually control the crowd, but at a certain point at the peak, the crowd became too tight," Maisel said.

Lazar Hyman, vice president of United Hatzalah, said it was one of the worst tragedies that he had ever experienced. "I have not seen anything like this since I entered into the field of emergency medicine back in 2000," said Hyman.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "huge disaster". "We are all praying for the well-being of the injured. I want to strengthen the hand of those carrying out rescue efforts and who are operating on-site," Netanyahu tweeted.

The local police chief told Israeli TV he accepted full responsibility for the incident.

"I take overall responsibility, for good and for bad. I am ready for every eventuality," said Shimon Lavie, Israel Police's northern commander. He said Israel's northern police command had prioritized security and public safety, but he could not explain what caused the stampede.

Lavie commended police officers who tried to help victims before patients were ferried to hospitals in ambulances and by helicopter. "Police were saving people's lives while they were also dealing with this complicated incident," he said.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of Jews -- many of them ultra-Orthodox -- flock to Bar Yochai's tomb site on Mount Meron, which lies in northern Israel’s Upper Galilee region 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of the city of Haifa. Bar Yochai's book "The Zohar" is the foundation of Jewish mysticism.

Israel health ministry had urged people not to attend the festival, warning of the risk of another coronavirus outbreak. However, case numbers have been low, and Israel has already fully vaccinated more than 58% of its population, so the event was allowed to proceed.

The injured were transported to Ziv Hospital in Safed, Rambam Hospital in Haifa, and the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, according to United Hatzalah CEO Eli Pollack. Six helicopters were used to transfer the wounded.