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Grim Picture Emerges After Stampede At Religious Festival In Israel


A grim picture is emerging of a disaster in Israel. Local media are reporting that more than a hundred people have been injured and at least 40 killed after a stampede at a religious festival in the northern part of the country. NPR's Daniel Estrin is following that story from Jerusalem, and he joins us now.

Daniel, let's start with what happened. What have you learned so far?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, this happened at a mountain in the Galilee in northern Israel. Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews usually make a pilgrimage there to a tomb of a revered rabbi. And one of the participants was speaking on Israeli radio, saying that there were huge crowds at the entrance of this site, people pushing to enter. He said lines of people just started falling over each other. One line of people falling onto another, onto another - just piles of people. This 25-year-old man was saying that he felt he was going to die and that he was rescued by a huge amount of paramedics that were there.

Another eyewitness was saying on the radio here that there were cries of a prayer that religious Jews are supposed to say before their death. Police are investigating exactly what happened. They are saying earlier reports of a bleacher collapsing are not true, that it was a stampede. Eyewitnesses are and medics are calling it one of the biggest mass casualty events Israel has seen in years, reminiscent of the bombings of the early 2000s during the Palestinian uprising.

CORNISH: How significant is this festival? I mean, what would the scene be like in terms of numbers of people and that sort of thing in a typical year?

ESTRIN: It's an enormous festival. It's called Lag BaOmer. It's a bonfire festival. And usually, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gather. It celebrates the anniversary of the death of a Jewish sage from the second century. He's buried in - the traditional tomb is in northern Israel in the mountains. According to tradition, he authored the main text of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah. So this is usually a very huge, happy celebration, more than a dozen enormous bonfires. Usually hundreds of thousands of people attend.

CORNISH: And in the year of the pandemic.

ESTRIN: Well, last year, because of the pandemic, the event was almost completely closed off to visitors. There were just a couple of symbolic bonfires, and people watched the event on TV, had to stay home. But this year, you know, in Israel, infections are very low now because of a successful vaccination campaign. And so Israel was preparing for enormous, enormous crowds to make up for last year. I was reporting in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood several weeks ago and reporting about efforts to try to get people to get vaccinated. And this event was one of the big pulls that got people to say, OK, if I get vaccinated, I'll have the certificate to be able to enter this event.

CORNISH: And the word from the prime minister - what have you heard?

ESTRIN: Well, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given his prayers, as well as the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, reciting Jewish prayers and saying this is an enormous catastrophe.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin. He'll be reporting throughout the night from Jerusalem.

Thank you for your time.

ESTRIN: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 29, 2021 at 9:00 PM PDT
The original headline said the stampede was in India. It happened in Israel.
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.