Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incident a “major disaster” while paramedics described chaotic scenes of teams giving people, including children, en masse CPR and lying breathlessly on the floor.
According to the Institute of Forensic Medicine, 32 of the victims have been identified, 22 of whom have been released for burial.
An official with knowledge of the death list said the final death toll is expected to be five US citizens.
The official said several factors delayed an official statement, including the need to privately inform families of their loss and the Shabbat rules. Families of two U.S. citizens have already been notified of their loss, the official said, and three more should follow.
Kalanit Taub, a first responder, described a “terrible scene” with “non-stop people to take care of”.
“I’ve seen more than 20 CPRs at a time,” Taub told CNN. “Everywhere you looked you saw another person doing CPR.”
In the hours that followed, she said she saw people cry or stare into space trying to process what they saw.
Israeli investigators are closely investigating how the swarm happened on the mountain where worshipers celebrated the Lag B’Omer holiday, an annual event where attendees sing at his tomb in homage to the second-century wise Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai , dance and light a fire.
The Israeli Ministry of Health had urged people not to attend the festival and warned of the risk of another coronavirus outbreak. However, the number of cases was low and Israel has already fully vaccinated more than 58% of its population so the event was able to continue.
Dov Maisel, vice president of operations for the voluntary emergency organization United Hatzalah, told CNN that around 100,000 people were in attendance, although such numbers are not uncommon for the annual festival. Maisel said up to 400,000 people have participated in the past few years.
Hundreds of people poured into the site from different directions at the same time, causing “massive congestion,” he said. In a small area crowded people fell down a flight of stairs and knocked each other down, he added.
“Overall, they usually control the crowd, but at some point at the peak the crowd got too tight,” Maisel said. “It was just tragic and terrible.”
Social media videos from the site show men and boys crammed together in a narrow passageway when it suddenly becomes apparent that many are struggling to keep walking and to be tossed back and forth in waves of excitement.
Zohar, one of the festival goers who was near the swarm, told Israel’s Channel 12 News that people moved well through the passageway until they suddenly stopped.
“Everyone was huddled together and nobody understood why. I raised my head and saw the police blocking the passage. We shouted, ‘People are dying there.'”
He said he saw people lose the color on their faces. “Then bodies fell at my feet. I tried to call for help, and slowly rescue workers arrived. There were some people who [rescuers] didn’t even try to revive. People lay on my feet and shouted ‘Help me’. “
Shlomo Katz, another worshiper, told Reuters, “We were going to go inside to dance and stuff and all of a sudden we saw MADA paramedics … running past like in the middle of CPR on kids, and then one by one I started to get out of the ambulance and then we understood something was going on here, “he said.
Footage of the scene showed dozens of body bags lined up on the floor and personal items such as abandoned shoes and crushed glasses scattered on the floor at the crime scene.
Dozens of ambulances parked in rows, their lights flashing, were ready to pick up the many injured. Authorities said 250 ambulances had been made available to respond. Six helicopters took some of the wounded to the hospital. Paramedics ran all over the area, and stretchers carried those in need of treatment.
The local police chief told Israeli television that he took full responsibility for the incident.
“I take overall responsibility for the good and the bad. I am ready for any eventuality,” said Shimon Lavie, the north commander of the Israeli police. He said Israel’s Northern Police Command gave security and public safety a priority, but could not explain what caused the onslaught.
Lavie praised police officers who tried to help the victims before the patients were taken to hospitals in ambulances and by helicopter. “The police saved people’s lives while dealing with this complicated incident,” he said.
United Hatzalah vice president Lazar Hyman said it was one of the worst tragedies he has ever witnessed. “I haven’t seen anything like this since I entered emergency medicine in 2000,” Hyman said.
Prime Minister Netanyahu said the nation prayed for the injured in what he called “one of the worst disasters Israel has experienced”. During a visit to the website, the Israeli leader said in a video recorded especially for his Facebook page: “Our hearts are with the families and the wounded.”
US President Joe Biden expressed condolences to Israel and Netanyahu on Friday. “The loss of life among worshipers who practice their faith is heartbreaking,” Biden said in a statement. “I have instructed my team to offer our assistance to the government and the people of Israel if they respond to the disaster and take care of the wounded.”
Every year hundreds of thousands of Jews – many of them ultra-Orthodox – flock to Bar Yochai’s tomb on Mount Meron, which is in the Upper Galilee region of northern Israel, about 40 kilometers northeast of the city from Haifa. Bar Yochai’s book “The Zohar” is the basis of Jewish mysticism.
CNN’s Andrew Carey reported from Jerusalem, Angela Dewan from London and Julia Hollingsworth from Hong Kong.