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Dozens Killed, Injured In Stampede At Religious Festival In Northern Israel

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

At this moment, it is hard to say what went wrong at a religious festival in Israel. We do know that tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered. And something panicked the crowd. In a stampede, at least 45 people are confirmed dead. NPR's Daniel Estrin is covering the story from Jerusalem. Daniel, welcome.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: What sort of gathering was this?

ESTRIN: Well, it's an annual Jewish holiday called Lag BaOmer. And every year, scores - I mean, we're talking hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews make a pilgrimage to the tomb of a revered rabbi who died in the second century. He's an important figure in kabbalah, in Jewish mysticism. His tomb is in the Galilee, in the mountains of northern Israel. So this is a huge complex with stairs, walkways leading to areas where there are big bonfires. Local media are estimating about 100,000 people were there last night, including families and children.

INSKEEP: So a dramatic setting with all these stairways and narrow passages and then more open areas. I'm a little surprised, I guess, that such a huge gathering would be allowed during the pandemic.

ESTRIN: Right. And that is what a lot of people are asking. I mean, you know, this always is the largest public event in Israel every year. Last year, it was canceled because of the pandemic. And this year, because of Israel's vaccination campaign, because of low infections, the event was allowed to happen. And it was the first mass gathering in Israel since the pandemic. It seems that the focus this year, though, was on COVID safety. So police were limiting the number of bonfires, focused on limiting the number of people who were there to attend each bonfire - only people who were vaccinated, et cetera. But because of all the excitement about this event that didn't take place last year, there were huge crowds. And that may have - what led to what happened.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk that through. You would think that those pandemic safety requirements would create a little more space and lessen the likelihood of some kind of panic or stampede. But something happened. So what is known?

ESTRIN: Well, I've been watching eyewitnesses on television - one from his hospital bed described what happened. He said around 1 a.m., crowds were pushing into each other just trying to get through in this complex, where there was a lot of police there trying to do crowd control. People were getting hot. The floor was getting slippery. And then suddenly, dozens of people just started falling on each other, one row after the other falling on the ground, more people collapsing onto them. This man speaking on TV was - said he found himself in a pile of people screaming. And people were reciting a Jewish prayer that's recited before one's death. He said it took a very long time for all the police and the paramedics at the site to just pull everyone out.

INSKEEP: So we're getting images almost of dominos falling. And I guess we don't know what would have caused the first domino. But as more information comes in, Daniel, how are Israelis responding?

ESTRIN: You know, it's being described as Israel's biggest civilian disaster, mass casualty event, not counting wars or attacks. And we really are still in the middle of it this morning. There are more than 100 wounded, people - you know, several people fighting for their lives in about five different hospitals across the country, efforts to identify bodies. Authorities are asking relatives to bring medical records and photographs to help identify bodies. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, went to the scene. And he says that he's declaring Sunday as a national day of mourning.

INSKEEP: Daniel, thanks for the update. Always appreciate your reporting.

ESTRIN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin. He is in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.