JERUSALEM — A stampede early Friday at a mountainside religious celebration in Israel that drew tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews left at least 45 people dead and scores more injured.
By some estimates, about 100,000 people were crammed together late Thursday to celebrate a holiday on Mount Meron in northern Israel, despite warnings from the authorities about the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
The deadly crush began around 1 a.m. on Friday, as celebrants began to pour out of a section of a compound where festivities were being held. The death toll of 45, released later by the Health Ministry, made it one of the worst civilian disasters in Israeli history.
Magen David Adom, the national ambulance service, said early Friday that it had treated 150 injured people. It posted a video on Twitter that showed a fleet of ambulances, red sirens flashing, waiting to evacuate the wounded.
“A terrible disaster,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, and Emanuele Giaufret, the European Union’s ambassador, offered condolences on Twitter to families of the victims.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews traditionally gather at Mount Meron for the holiday, Lag b’Omer, to dance and make bonfires around the tomb of a prominent rabbi from antiquity. Critics have warned for years that the site’s patchy infrastructure cannot safely handle large crowds.
A video said to have been taken right before the stampede on Friday showed a mass of people in ecstatic celebration, moving in unison to the music.
Early accounts of what led to the stampede varied.
Initial reports indicated that a grandstand had collapsed. But as details emerged, it appeared that the crush had occurred after celebrants slipped on stone steps leading into a narrow passageway with a metal-floored slope, setting off what the news site Ynet described as a “human avalanche.”
One of the injured, Chaim Vertheimer, said that the slope had become slippery from spilled water and grape juice.
“For some reason there was sudden pressure at this point and people stopped, but more people kept coming down,” Mr. Vertheimer told Ynet, speaking from his hospital bed in the holy city of Safed. “People were not breathing. I remember hundreds of people screaming ‘I can’t breathe’.”
Some rescue workers attributed the tragedy to the sheer volume of people who had gathered at Mount Meron. Television images from the scene showed shoes, hats, plastic bottles and other debris littering the passageway after it was evacuated. A metal hand rail, meant to help people steady themselves as they walked down the slippery slope, had collapsed.
The site around the rabbi’s tomb had been divided into separate sections in an apparent effort to contain and control the crowds. But as the death toll climbed on Friday morning, questions arose about poor planning and possible negligence.
Footage shot as the disaster unfolded showed police officers trying to stop people from fleeing the scene. That could have been because the officers did not immediately realize the extent of the danger, or because they wanted to prevent the stampede from spilling into other areas of the compound.
Television images also showed a side door in the evacuated passageway that had been locked shut.
Amir Ohana, the minister of public security from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, who oversees the police, had been at the event earlier on Thursday evening. After the stampede, he wrote on Twitter that the police chief was on his way to the scene.
Eli Levy, a spokesman for the police, said an investigation was underway but that it was too early to apportion blame or speak of negligence. He also cautioned against drawing conclusions from isolated video clips. Mr. Levy added that despite calls to evacuate the mountain, some celebrants had refused to leave or tried to make their way back.