At least a dozen children and teens under 18 were among 45 people killed in a stampede at a Lag B’Omer festival in northern Israel, according to a partial list of names released Saturday as the identification of victims in Israel’s deadliest civil disaster continued.
Four Americans, a Canadian and a man from Argentina were also among those killed. Two families each lost two children. The youngest victim, Yehoshua Englander, was nine years old. His brother, Moshe Natan Neta Englander, 14, was also killed.
The other minor victims are: brothers Moshe Mordechai Elhadad, 12, and Yosef David Elhadad, 18; Yedidia Hayut, 13; Eliyahu Cohen, 16; Moshe Levy, 14; Yosef Yehuda Levy, 17; Nahman Kirshbaum, 1
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Most were buried Friday and Saturday night in funerals that attracted hundreds of mourners.
Meanwhile, calls grew higher on Saturday for the establishment of an official commission of inquiry, partly to measure the responsibility of politicians and senior decision-makers to allow the mass rally to take place despite repeated warnings over the years about security deficits. In an initial response, the country’s cabinet minister, who oversees the country’s police force, defended the police’s handling of the event.
The storm early on Friday had interrupted the annual festival of Lag B’Omer on the Israeli mountain Meron. The festival had drawn about 100,000 people to the largest gathering so far this year as Israel’s successful vaccination campaign allowed the country to get out of coronavirus restrictions.
As a large number of people began to leave one of the events at the festival, they penetrated a narrow tunnel-like passage that sloped downward and ended with a series of steps. According to witnesses, the floor had become slippery with spilled water and juice. As some in the crowd slipped down, they fell behind them on top of them on the ground.
Veteran paramedic Yossi Halabi told Israel TV’s Channel 12 on Saturday that he “encountered a wall of corpses” after first becoming aware of the disaster from his nearby post. He said it took him and other rescuers about 40 minutes to pull the dead and wounded out of the chaos.
He said it was “one of the worst, if not the worst incidents” he had seen in 30 years on the job.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared Sunday a national day of mourning. On Saturday night, a guard was held in Tel Aviv, where people lit memorial candles, and the municipality lit the town hall with the Israeli flag.
Israeli media said 32 of the 45 victims were identified before the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sunset Friday. Of these, 22 were laid to rest before the Sabbath. The identification of the remaining victims and funerals resumed after sunset, as did some of the funerals. Jewish law requires prompt burial of the dead.
Sixteen people remained hospitalized, including three in serious condition.
Layer B’Omer is very popular among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is believed to have been buried there. The crowds light bonfires, dance and have large festive meals as part of the festivities. Across the country, even in secular areas, smaller groups gather in parks and forests for barbecues and bonfires.
Experts have long warned that the Mount Meron festivities were ripe for disaster due to the crowded conditions, large fires and hot weather. In a 2008 report, the state inspector, a watchdog office, warned the conditions at the site, including escape routes, “in danger to the public.”
The Justice Department said it was launching an investigation into possible criminal acts by police officers. Witnesses complained that police barricades had prevented people from getting out properly.
However, there were growing demands on Saturday, including from retired police chiefs, for an official commission of inquiry that could also review decisions made by the political leadership.
In a post on Facebook, Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana, who is in charge of the police and also a close confidant of Netanyahu, praised the behavior of the police. He said he was ready to “take responsibility” and answer all questions. “I am responsible – but responsibility does not mean guilt,” he wrote.