JERUSALEM (AP) — At least 10 children and teens younger than 18 were among 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel, according to a partial list of names published Saturday as the identification of victims in Israel’s deadliest civilian disaster continued.
Four Americans, a Canadian and a man from Argentina were also among those killed. Two families each lost two children. The youngest victim was nine years old.
Meanwhile, calls were growing louder Saturday for establishing an official commission of inquiry, in part to gauge the responsibility of politicians and senior decision-makers for allowing the mass gathering to take place, despite repeated warnings over the years about safety lapses.
The stampede early Friday had cut short the annual festival of Lag BaOmer on Israel’s Mount Meron. The festival had drawn some 100,000 people in the largest gathering so far this year as Israel’s successful vaccination campaign allowed the country to emerge from coronavirus restrictions.
As large numbers of people began to leave one of the events at the festival, they thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage that sloped downward and ended with a series of steps. The floor had become slippery with spilled water and juice, according to witnesses. As some in the crowd slipped, those behind them fell on top of those on the ground.
Veteran paramedic Yossi Halabi told Israel TV’s Channel 12 on Saturday that he “encountered a wall of bodies” after he was first alerted to the disaster from his nearby post. He said it took him and fellow rescuers about 40 minutes to extract the dead and wounded from the chaos.
He said that it was “one of the worst if not the worst incident” he had seen in 30 years on the job.
Israeli media said 32 of the 45 victims were identified before the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown Friday. Of those, 22 were laid to rest before the Sabbath. The identification of the remaining victims and burials were to resume after sundown Saturday.
Sixteen people remained hospitalized, including three in serious condition.
Lag BaOmer is very popular with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd-century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried there. The crowds light bonfires, dance and have large festive meals as part of the celebrations. Across the country, even in secular areas, smaller groups gather in parks and forests for barbecues and bonfires.