Israeli medical workers sought on Friday to identify many of the 45 people crushed to death overnight at an overcrowded religious festival, where some of the victims went unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse.
Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had thronged to the Galilee tomb of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual Lag B'Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.
Witnesses spoke of seeing a "pyramid" of people who were asphyxiated or trampled in a stampede through a passageway around 3 meters (10 feet) wide. Medics said the casualties, including children, were concentrated in the men's section of the gender-segregated festival.
Crowds had packed the slopes of Mount Meron in northern Israel in defiance of warnings to maintain social distancing against the spread of COVID-19.
Israel will hold a day of mourning on Sunday with flags lowered to half mast on all public buildings, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced after a visit to the site.
By late afternoon on Friday most 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.
A U.S. Embassy spokesperson said it was working with Israeli authorities to verify reports that U.S. citizens were among the dead and injured.
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.
'PEOPLE DIED IN FRONT OF MY EYES'
"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.
People who stayed on the scene through the night questioned how the situation so quickly spiralled out of control, though there had been concern for years about safety risks at the annual event.
The Justice Ministry said investigators would look into whether there had been any police misconduct connected to the tragedy.
About a decade ago a government watchdog report found fault with the management of the festival premises, including ownership and a "systemic failure" in maintenance that could endanger visitors. It was not immediately known if steps were taken to remedy the situation after the report.
A police spokesman said on Friday 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.
Netanyahu said one of the "heaviest disasters" in Israeli history had occurred and promised a thorough investigation to ensure it did not happen again.
The United States and European Union offered condolences.
Helicopters ferried injured people to hospitals and the military said search-and-rescue troops were scrambled.
With the site cleared, rescue workers collapsed against railings, some weeping as their colleagues comforted them.
As rescue workers tried to extricate the casualties, police shut down the site and ordered revellers out. The Transportation Ministry halted roadworks in the area to enable scores of ambulances and pilgrim buses to move unhindered.
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% of the population fully vaccinated.