At least 45 people were crushed to death overnight at an overcrowded religious festival in Israel, with some asphyxiated or trampled victims going unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse, Reuters reported.
Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had thronged to the Galilee tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual Lag B'Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.
Witnesses said many of the dead were caught in a tightly packed passageway around three metres wide after crowds packed the slopes of Mount Meron in northern Israel in defiance of warnings to maintain social distancing against COVID-19.
Medics said there had been a stampede in the men's section of the gender-segregated festival. Casualties included children.
Many of the dead had yet to be identified and police asked family members to provide pictures and personal information of those who attended the festival and were still missing to help with the process.
Videos posted on social media showed ultra-Orthodox men clambering desperately through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the crush. Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, covered in foil blankets.
"There was some kind of mess, police, screaming, a big mess, and after half an hour it looked like a scene of a suicide bombing attack, numerous people coming out from there on stretchers," said 19-year-old festival-goer Hayim Cohen.
"We were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from [ambulance service] MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids," 36-year-old pilgrim Shlomo Katz told Reuters.
An injured man lying on a hospital bed described to reporters how the crush began when a line of people in the front of the surging crowd simply collapsed.
"A pyramid of one on top of another was formed. People were piling up one on top of the other. I was in the second row. The people in the first row – I saw people die in front of my eyes," he said.
The Justice Ministry said investigators would look into whether there had been any police misconduct connected to the tragedy.
A police spokesman said overall capacity at Mount Meron was similar to previous years but that this time bonfire areas were partitioned off as a COVID-19 precaution. That may have created unexpected choke-points on foot traffic, Israeli media said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while visiting the site, called it one of the "heaviest disasters" in Israel's history and promised a thorough investigation to ensure it did not recur. He called for a national day of mourning on Sunday.
The United States and European Union offered condolences.
Helicopters ferried injured people to hospitals and the military said search-and-rescue troops were scrambled.
The Mount Meron tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and is an annual pilgrimage site. The event was one of the largest gatherings in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.
Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions. But lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel's rapid COVID-19 vaccination programme that has seen more than 54 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.