Hundreds need treatment amid Lag Ba'omer festivities

Heat, transportation chaos of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims cause misery at central Lag Ba’omer celebrations on Mt. Meron.

Mt Meron  Lag baomer 370 (photo credit: Flash 90)
Mt Meron Lag baomer 370
(photo credit: Flash 90)
The traditional Lag Ba’omer celebrations at Meron in the Galilee that started Saturday night have been marred this year by transport chaos caused by at least 300,000 pilgrims trying to reach the site and subsequent medical complications arising from the hot weather conditions on Sunday.
Due to the combination of severe overcrowding on the small Galilee hill of Mount Meron, the searing temperatures and inadequate organization, hundreds of people required treatment on site for illness and injuries, and dozens more were evacuated to Safed’s Ziv Medical Center.
The public health danger was not over, however, as the celebrations were extended to Sunday night and Monday as well.
Lag Ba’omer is the day halting the semi-mourning period between Passover and Shavuot for the death by plague of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 pupils in Roman times and the anniversary of the death of Talmudic sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai.
As in years past, hundreds of thousands of people from around the country made their way to Mount Meron Saturday night – the burial place of Bar Yohai, who lived in the first century CE – for the raucous celebrations of the holiday, which include the lighting of bonfires, singing, dancing and general rejoicing.
But tens of thousands became stuck in enormous traffic jams approaching the site, particularly from parking lots, located several kilometers away, to the area of the tomb itself.
Many visitors were forced to walk to Mount Meron from the parking lot areas located several kilometers from the site, with some fainting because of the intense heat prevailing over the region at present.
Magen David Adom, which as every year set up a makeshift first-aid center on Mount Meron, had 15 ambulances, four mobile intensive care centers and two stations to deal with catastrophes, plus dozens of motorcycles and hundreds of medics, paramedics and doctors at the site since Friday. By Sunday evening, 348 people were treated, and 60 were hospitalized.
One man, aged 45, was in moderate-to-serious condition from burns and smoke inhalation there, while all others who underwent treatment were listed in good condition after treatment.
Among the medical problems were burns, smoke inhalation, physical trauma due to falls and other causes, nausea and vomiting due to improperly stored food, over-consumption of alcohol and violence.
Hospital director Dr. Oscar Embon said that his emergency department prepares in advance for Lag Ba’omer sick and injured every year.
“The celebration brings hundreds of thousands of people to a small area. The crowding and heat cause many to suffer from hyperthermia.
So far, the patients have suffered light injuries, but we are prepared for all situations and hope the celebrations pass peacefully,” he said.
“We ask the public to observe the security arrangements, follow instructions of the police, take care at bonfires, drink a lot of water due to the heat and take special care of babies, children and the elderly, who are even more sensitive.”
By late Sunday morning police stated that traffic had begun to flow again, adding that the police forces had distributed 50,000 bottles of water to people caught up in the traffic jams and walking to the site.
United Hatzalah, which also sent large amounts of first-aid volunteers to the site, said it was “chaotic” because the transportation services “collapsed,” leaving many thousands standing on their feet with nowhere to rest and no way to get home. Some with chronic illness were stuck without their medications or medical equipment and became sick.
Pirhiya Hyman-Katz, who came from Jerusalem and was taken to Ziv after feeling unwell, said she sat in the bus for eight hours because the driver was unable to get to the site. The passengers finally got off and hiked to Meron for over 90 minutes. A MDA ambulance evacuated her.
Yosef Urbino of Gush Etzion, whose wife Yaffa was hospitalized after fainting, said their bus was prevented from proceeding 5 kilometers from Meron due to traffic jams. Instead, the passengers were forced to trek uphill for many kilometers.
“We finally arrived,” said Yosef. “There was no place in the shade to sit and not even any benches. People handed out water, but it wasn’t in large enough quantities for the crowd. My wife passed out and was taken to Ziv.”
He added that it was unfortunate that there weren’t garbage cans or cleaners.
“It’s a shame that in such an important and holy site, teams were not available to keep things clean. There was garbage piled all over the grounds.”
Although, some 40 years ago, the number of pilgrims going to Meron on Lag Ba’omer was far fewer than today, the site has been plagued with deaths due to crowding going back over a century. In 1911, a stage collapsed, causing the deaths of nine people.
Several United Torah Judaism MKs have condemned the chaotic situation and called for the establishment of an investigative committee.
Meron is the second largest place of pilgrimage in the country after the Western Wall. Last year, approximately half a million people went to the site on Lag Ba’omer, with a similar number expected this year as well.
The central bonfire at Meron is customarily lit by the grand rabbi of the Boyan hassidic dynasty.
One organization, Yeshivat HaMekubalim Or HaRashbi, provided approximately 200,000 free meals to visitors during the celebrations, which were set to continue throughout Sunday night and Monday.
Haim Ze’evald , a representative of Or HaRashbi said: “At Meron there are no differences between communities.
Everyone comes here to celebrate together and in unity.”