At least 44 people have been killed and 150 injured after a stampede at an overcrowded religious festival in Israel.

By Hadas Gold, Amir Tal, Abeer Salman and Michael Schwartz, CNN

Hundreds of buses stretched over miles of winding road were ferrying thousands of worshipers off Mount Meron in northern Israel on Friday after 45 people were killed and some 150 others injured in a crush at a mass Jewish gathering overnight.

Israeli security officials and rescuers stand around the bodies of victims who died overnight on Mount Meron.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incident a “huge disaster,” while paramedics described chaotic scenes of teams administering CPR en masse to people, including children, lying breathless on the ground.

Chaos erupts after stampede at Israeli religious event kills dozens, injuring 150

According to the Institute of Forensic Medicine, 32 of the victims have been identified, with 22 of those released for burial.An official with knowledge of the list of fatalities said the final death toll is expected to include five US citizens.

The official said several factors were delaying an official statement, including the need to inform the families privately of their loss and Shabbat regulations.

Ultra Orthodox Jews look at stairs with waste on it in Mount Meron, northern Israel, where fatalities were reported among the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at the tomb of a 2nd-century sage for annual commemorations that include all-night prayer and dance, April 30, 2021. REUTERS/ Ronen Zvulun

Families of two US citizens had already been told of their loss, the official said, and three more were expected to follow.Kalanit Taub, a first responder, described a “horrific scene” with “nonstop people to care for.”

Video taken moments before the disaster at the Lag B’Omer festival, in northern Israel, show a huge crowd of Orthodox Jews dancing along to music in an amphitheatre area near the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai

“I saw 20-plus CPRs ongoing at the same time,” Taub told CNN. “Anywhere you looked, you saw another person doing CPR.” In the hours afterward, she said she saw people crying or staring into space, struggling to process what they had seen.

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT – Israel stampede: Netanyahu vows to investigate

Israeli investigators are examining exactly how the crush happened at the mountain, where worshipers marked the Lag B’Omer holiday, an annual event where participants sing, dance and light fires in homage to second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at his burial site.

Israel’s health ministry had urged people not to attend the festival, warning of the risk of another coronavirus outbreak.

However, case numbers have been low, and Israel has already fully vaccinated more than 58% of its population, so the event was allowed to proceed.

Israeli rescue teams carry a body into an ambulance on Friday at Mount Meron.

Dov Maisel, vice president of operations of the volunteer-based emergency organization United Hatzalah, told CNN that around 100,000 people were in attendance, though such numbers aren’t unusual for the annual festival.

Maisel said up to 400,000 people had attended in past years.

Paramedics and ultra-Orthodox Jewish men stand next to covered bodies on Mount Meron on April 30.

Hundreds of people were pouring into the site at the same time from different directions, leading to a “massive amount of congestion,” he said.

People tightly packed in a small area had fallen down a staircase and crushed each other, he added.

“Overall they usually control the crowd, but at a certain point at the peak the crowd became too tight,” Maisel said. “It was simply tragic and horrific.”

Funerals immediately got underway in keeping with Orthodox tradition, with large crowds taking to the streets of Jerusalem

Prime Minister Netanyahu said the nation was praying for the injured in what he called “one of the worst disasters that Israel has experienced.”

Speaking during a visit to the site, on a specially-recorded video for his Facebook page, the Israeli leader said that “our hearts are with the families and the wounded.”

Israeli Ultra-Orthodox mourners attend the funeral of Nachma Kirshevius. On Twitter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the deadly stampede it a ‘heavy disaster’ and added: ‘We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties’

US President Joe Biden offered condolences to Israel and Netanyahu on Friday. “The loss of life among worshipers practicing their faith is heartbreaking,” Biden said in a statement.

“I have instructed my team to offer our assistance to the government and people of Israel as they respond to the disaster and care for the wounded.”

Each year, hundreds of thousands of Jews — many of them ultra-Orthodox — flock to Bar Yochai’s tomb site on Mount Meron, which lies in the Upper Galilee region of northern Israel, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of the city of Haifa.

Bar Yochai’s book “The Zohar” is the foundation of Jewish mysticism.

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