At least 4 U.S. citizens among those dead at religious festival

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JERUSALEM — At least four U.S. citizens were among those dead after a stampede on the slopes of Israel’s Mount Meron, a spokesman for the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Saturday, as funeral preparations began.

Lior Haiat told NBC News the ministry was assisting American families trying to fly into the country.

“There are four families that are in the New York area that we are in touch with, and the consulate in New York is helping them,” Haiat said. “There are two other families from Canada and one from Argentina and we’re also in touch with their families,” he added.

At least 45 people died and more than 100 were injured in the stampede at around 1 a.m. local time Friday (8 p.m. ET Thursday) that occurred during celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron in northern Israel, by the tomb of an ancient Jewish mystic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Israeli security officials and rescuers stand around the bodies of victims who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mount Meron in northern Israel on Friday.Ishay Jerusalemite / AP

Each year, tens of thousands of people — mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews — throng to the area to celebrate the rabbi and light bonfires as part of the celebrations. The event was the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J. tweeted Friday that one of his constituents, Donny Morris, had died in the crush.

Rabbi Yechiel Morris, his uncle, confirmed his death to several media outlets, telling them the 19-year-old had been undertaking studies in Israel. NBC News could not independently verify these reports and has reached out to his family.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Israel said Saturday that it was “working with local authorities to verify whether any additional U.S. citizens were affected and is providing all possible consular support to affected U.S. citizens and their loved ones.”

Israel’s Health Ministry told Reuters 32 of the dead had been identified so far by late Friday, but Haiat said observance of the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest, had paused this process until after sunset Saturday evening. Many of the funerals are also expected to take place after that time, in keeping with religious practices.

He said the names of the Americans who died had not been confirmed but identification was likely to be finally completed by Sunday.

It is unclear what caused the stampede, but video footage showed people being pulled back and forth by the sheer momentum of the tightly packed crowd. Other images of the event showed a mass of people, mostly men clad in black, spilling down a narrow open-air passage.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday and offered U.S. assistance.

“The United States stands with the people of Israel, and with Jewish communities the world over, in mourning the terrible tragedy at Mount Meron,” Biden said in a statement. “The loss of life among worshipers practicing their faith is heartbreaking.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed two Canadians were among those who died and said he felt “shock and sadness” in a statement Friday. Other world leaders including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also offered their condolences.

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After visiting the scene Friday, Netanyahu said it was “one of the worst disasters to hit the state of Israel.”

“We will carry out a thorough, serious and in-depth investigation in order to ensure that such a disaster does not recur,” he said, before declaring a national day of mourning on Sunday.

However, angry crowds appeared to jeer and boo at Netanyahu during his visit, in videos posted on social media, as many lay blame with his government and the police for the disaster.

Lawahez Jabari reported from Jerusalem and Adela Suliman from London.

Reuters contributed to this report.





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