New footage has emerged of last week’s deadly crush at Mount Meron, showing how crowds quickly built up at the religious festival until a packed walkway became a deathtrap that killed dozens of people in Israel’s worst civilian disaster.
Video from security cameras broadcast by Channel 12 News on Wednesday showed how the tragedy, in which 45 people died and over 150 were injured, unfolded.
The tragedy occurred early Friday, as thousands celebrating Lag B’Omer at the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai streamed through a narrow walkway. The passage was covered with metal flooring and may have been wet, causing some people to fall underfoot during the rush for the exit. Some apparently fell on the walkway and down a flight of stairs at its end, toppling onto those below and precipitating a fatal crushing domino effect.
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Footage showed that at 12:41 a.m. on Friday the walkway had just a few dozen people in it, with easy movement in both directions. The passage provided entry and exit to the Toldot Aharon compound, where thousands of people were attending a bonfire.
By 12:44 a.m. the event had finished and participants began to exit. Within seconds the passage became choked. The report noted that at the time there were no police or rescue services in sight and no apparent efforts to ease the dangerously escalating pressure as those coming down the walkway pressed into others caught in the turns at the bottom.
Just a minute later a medic could be seen pulling himself from the crowd by climbing a side barrier of the passage and desperately working to force apart the metal boundaries to clear some space.
It was at that point that disaster struck, as some people higher up the inclined passage apparently lost their footing, tumbling into those below as the still-increasing crowds above pressed down onto them.
In the seconds that followed, as some realized what was unfolding, a man could be seen desperately waving to those further up the passage to change direction and move back up, but his efforts were in vain.
Watch the video, with Hebrew narration, below:
By 12:47 a.m. the crowd, squeezed together, was unable to move. It was at this point that three police officers arrived and begin to extract some of those who had fallen to the ground. Several people could be seen battering the side barriers, aiming to open life-saving passages for escape.
Two minutes later one of the barriers was partially torn away, creating an opening above head height. Immediately attempts were made to bring people out through the improvised exits.
Another two minutes passed before significant numbers of police and rescue services were seen clearing more of the barriers to relieve the pressure.
For many of the dozens crushed at the bottom of the stairs, it was already too late.
There have been increasing demands for a state commission of inquiry into the tragedy, with the focus directed at the organization of the annual Lag B’Omer events at Mount Meron.
Though political leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have urged a thorough investigation, so far there has been no move to set up a commission of inquiry.
State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman has launched his own probe of the Meron incident, although it is not an official state inquiry. Englman on Wednesday visited Meron to review the site as the investigation kicked off.
“I think it is very important that the review be focused and after that, we will do our work in a professional manner,” he told media.
The Israel Police is also investigating the disaster and the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) is examining the police response at the festival.
With no indication that a state inquiry will be established, the PIID decided Wednesday that it will begin taking testimonies in the coming days, the Ynet website reported. The department will also gather recordings from all security cameras at the scene, according to the report.
The site, the second-most visited religious site in Israel after the Western Wall, appears to have become a kind of extraterritorial zone, with separate ultra-Orthodox sects organizing their own events and their own access arrangements, with no overall supervision, and with police routinely pressured by cabinet ministers and ultra-Orthodox politicians not to object.
Former police officials have said there had been fears for years that tragedy could strike as a result of the massive crowds and lack of supervision on Lag B’Omer.
Multiple reports in Hebrew media outlets indicated that there had been immense pressure by religious lawmakers ahead of the festivities to ensure that there would be no limits placed on the number of attendees due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some 100,000 ultra-Orthodox pilgrims ultimately attended the event. A framework drawn up by the Health Ministry, in consultation with other government officials, police and others, would have limited the event to 9,000 participants but was not implemented.