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Mount Meron: Why did it take 11 hours to transfer 45 bodies to Abu Kabir?

CM 04/05/2021

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There was an 11-hour delay to transfer 45 bodies from northern Israel to the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine last Friday after the Meron crush. By Shabbat, only 22 bodies had been released for burial. Now, the families who lost their loved ones are asking: What went wrong?It seems that the answer is something that will take an investigation of its own, as representatives of Abu Kabir, ZAKA Search and Rescue and the police all have slightly different versions of the story.The timeline starts at around 1 a.m. in the Mount Meron complex where the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Hasidic Toldot Aharon community was holding its celebration, joined by many other celebrants. Suddenly, people began to slip down a narrow staircase, falling on top of each other until 45 people were either asphyxiated or trampled, many dying on the spot and some dying later.But according to a spokeswoman for the Northern District Police, it took until 4 a.m. to deal with the more than 150 injured people, who needed to be treated and, in some cases, sent to hospitals for emergency care. Only after that, could the deceased be taken care of.From 1 a.m. until 4 a.m., ZAKA Search and Rescue workers pulled the bodies from the chaos, the spokeswoman and Moti Bukjim, a spokesman for Zaka confirmed. Bukjim was also a first responder at the scene.The spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post that around 4 a.m. the bodies – there were only 38, since some of those who died later had been brought to Ziv Medical Center in hopes of being saved – were transferred from a large, open space where ZAKA had gathered them, to a more enclosed area for identification.“The police tell us what to do,” Bukjim told the Post. “They decided to identify the people on the ground [at Meron] until around 9 a.m. Then, they told us to transfer them to Abu Kabir. We did that until 9:25 a.m.”

The other bodies – of people who died later at Ziv – were transferred to Abu Kabir at the same time, he said.ACCORDING TO the police, they tried to prepare the bodies for release at the scene.“ZAKA worked with the police to help identify the bodies,” explained Eliezer Summit, a first responder who was on the scene. “We checked what was in their pockets, for example – maybe someone had their national identity card so we could easily identify him.”Most of the dead had no identification, however.The rescue team working with the police also took the victims’ fingerprints and photographed them and anything connected to them. The police wrote up reports on the deceased and labeled them for transfer.Some 13 of the 38 victims had “already basically been identified” by then, the spokeswoman said.Summit said the first discussions were to bring the bodies to Ziv or the Safed Police, where families could have come to confirm the death of their loved ones and from where they could have been released. However, because so many of the families were from Central Israel – Beit Shemesh, Beitar Illit and Jerusalem, for example – the police decided it would be easier for them to go to Abu Kabir.But when the dead arrived at Abu Kabir in a caravan of ambulances, the process started over again, ZAKA claimed.“The first question that has to be asked,” said institute head Dr. Chen Kogel, is “why didn’t they come until 12:30 p.m.? If they had come earlier, like 7 a.m., we might have been able to release the bodies before Shabbat.”He also said the other challenge was that all the bodies arrived at the same time, which was “very difficult. Imagine an emergency room and 45 people arrive. Just registering them took time.”“Why wait?” he continued. “Why send the whole batch of 45? If the bodies had come one by one, then we could have processed them very fast.”“It was easier just to send everyone at once,” Bukjim replied.But someone closely connected to Abu Kabir accused ZAKA of carrying out a “PR move” by caravaning to the center with the bodies. He said they wanted to be photographed as the heroes.
TO MANAGE the process, the institute gathered some eight board-certified forensic pathologists and five residents. However, Kogel said that each body bag had to be opened and each victim examined. The fingerprints that were taken in the field were not done correctly, he claimed, so the institute had to redo them.“The police told us to redo the fingerprints,” Kogel told the Post.Abu Kabir also conducted CT scans on each of the victims to reconfirm the cause of death, which Kogel said is standard protocol to ensure there are no mistakes.“We have situations where a family member looks at a photo or even points to a body and says this is a member of my family and then it turns out it is not the right body,” Kogel said. “People can falsely identify [their loved ones] using visual identification. People change after death and also because of the emotional state of the families.”The ZAKA volunteers were on hand to help the families, but were refused entry into Abu Kabir for reasons that are unclear, leaving the families largely on their own inside the institute.“We did whatever we could to help the families,” Bukjim said. “I have been volunteering with ZAKA for 23 years and I still cannot [process] this event. I just cannot return to normal life” since the Meron tragedy.The final Meron victims were identified on Sunday morning at around 7 a.m. and released for burial the same day – nearly 55 hours after they died.The police spokeswoman said that she believes there were several mistakes made on arrival at Abu Kabir, adding that “I don’t know why it was like that.”But she also said that infighting and blame should not be the aftermath of such a tragedy.“In an event like this, we all need to have a little more understanding,” she concluded.
Source: Jerusalem Post

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