The morning after a deadly stampede on a mountainside in Israel left at least 45 people dead and scores more injured, the authorities were investigating on Friday how a joyous religious ceremony was transformed into one of the deadliest civilian disasters in the nation’s history.
By some estimates, roughly 100,000 people had thronged to the Mount Meron tomb of an ancient rabbi, the site of the annual celebration, congregating around towering bonfires that lit up the night sky in the northern reaches of the country. It was the largest gathering since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and was held despite concerns that it could fuel an outbreak.
But an evening of prayer and dancing turned chaotic around 1 a.m., when thousands of people found themselves trapped in a crush.
Witnesses described a desperate scene, as an avalanche of people surged, with adults and children caught in the maelstrom struggling for air.
Videos showed rescue workers desperately trying to tear down metal barriers as they struggled to reach victims. Zaki Heller, a spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalized, with several in critical condition.
Mr. Heller told Israel Army Radio that “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.
Two different witnesses told Haaretz that a police barricade prevented people from exiting and caused overcrowding. Television images also showed a side door in the evacuated passageway that had been locked shut.
On Friday morning, the Justice Ministry said that a police internal investigations department had begun a probe into possible criminal misconduct by officers.
reported to have thrown stones and other objects at police officers who tried to control the crowd.
But the country’s swift inoculation campaign and plummeting infection rates have allowed it to take rapid steps back toward normalcy in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Israel lifted its outdoor mask mandate and fully reopened schools for the first time since September.
About 56 percent of the Israeli population had been fully vaccinated for Covid-19 as of Thursday, according to a New York Times database.
The pilgrimage was held this year despite warnings from Israeli health officials that it could lead to coronavirus cases — a danger heightened by the fact that some parts of ultra-Orthodox communities have been hesitant to get vaccinated.
A police spokesman told Israeli news media that overall capacity at Mount Meron was similar to previous years but that this time bonfire areas were partitioned off as a coronavirus precaution. Religious leaders suggested on Friday that those precautions might be partly to blame for the disaster.
On Thursday, before the stampede, the Israeli police said they had arrested two people for disrupting officers’ efforts to keep order at the site. But the crowd was so vast, the police said, that they could not make people obey coronavirus restrictions.