At least 45 killed after stampede at religious gathering in Israel

israel stampede
israel stampede

Efforts to identify victims and connect loved ones with missing relatives will continue into the weekend after a deadly stampede at a religious celebration in northern Israel killed at least 45 people early Friday.

A State Department spokesperson told USA TODAY “multiple” American citizens were among the dead. Four Americans were killed, according to a partial list of names published Saturday. The youngest victim was nine years old.

In what is one of the country’s deadliest civilian disasters, about 100,000 people were crowded by Mount Meron early Friday for the celebration of Lag BaOmer, a holiday that, among other things, commemorates Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second century sage and mystic who is buried at the base of the mountain.

Zaka, one of the country’s ambulance service, confirmed the death toll had risen to 45. Around 150 people were injured with six in critical condition, said Zaki Heller, a spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service.

An 18-year-old Bergenfield, N.J. man was among the dead, according to his family.

Donny Morris was at Mount Meron for the celebration of Lag BaOmer, a festival celebrated at the foot of the mountain each year, when he was killed in the stampede. The gathering drew over 100,000 people and was the first legal religious ceremony since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“We are all shocked and devastated. There are no words,” said Rabbi Yechiel Morris, the victim’s uncle, who confirmed the young man’s death on Friday.

Morris was studying in Israel during a gap year after graduating from the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, in Manhattan, the rabbi said.

The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey tweeted their condolences to the family Friday. “May Donny’s memory only be for a blessing,” the tweet said.

“Our Embassy and Department of State will provide all necessary support to any U.S. citizens and their family members affected by this sad event,” President Biden said in a statement Friday. “The people of the United States and Israel are bound together by our families, our faiths, and our histories, and we will stand with our friends.”

Zaka spokesman Motti Bukchin said families were being notified and the bodies were being taken to a single location for identification. He said he expected the bodies to be buried before sundown of the Jewish Sabbath, when funerals do not take place. Bodies were later taken to Israel’s central forensic pathology institute.

The Times of Israel reported Friday 32 people had been identified and 22 funerals held. Victim identification is expected to resume after the Sabbath, the news outlet reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday briefly visited Mount Meron and said it was “one of the worst disasters that has befallen the state of Israel.” A day of mourning would be Sunday, Netanyahu said.

President Joe Biden said he was heartbroken and had called Netanyahu to offer support. “The people of the United States and Israel are bound together by our families, our faiths, and our histories, and we will stand with our friends,” he said.

According to witnesses and video, the stampede began as a large number of people in a narrow tunnel-like passage began falling on top of each other near the end of a walkway. Witnesses said some fell on a slippery staircase.

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