One year later, and just before returning to Meron, nine Magen David Adom (MDA) paramedics and EMTs recall and share their feelings from the difficult moments of last year's disaster.
MDA paramedic and medical student Omri Gorge (28) from Moshav Kfar Hitim recounted: "Three days before the event I received the task of supervising MDA's Intensive Care Bus in Meron. I know the mountain well, I've been going there since I was a child."
"Shortly after midnight I received a report that a paramedic was treating someone and needed assistance, so along with the EMTs who were with me we started to head in his direction. Seconds later we received reports of a major incident. In the chaos of the event, where the music continued, I saw unconscious patients all around who were being resuscitated. I reported a mass-casualty incident.
"I keep searching and see a body and another body and another body, and it doesn't end. I report over the radio that the numbers keep rising and can't believe what I'm seeing. The disaster in Meron took me back to my military service. They were difficult scenes and the decisions I had to make in the field keep coming back to me.
"A short time after the disaster I was accepted to study medicine in Poland but I knew that whatever happened, I'd return to provide medical cover this year too. I always remember Meron as a happy event, one that brings people closer, but the disaster last year has ruined this memory. It's important to return to the mountain in happier circumstances and that, please G-d, everyone will enjoy themselves and return home safely."
"Last year's disaster is an incident that I'll never forget, the noise and the screaming at the beginning, and then the horrifying, deafening silence. On the one hand, I was totally engrossed in medical treatment, but in the meantime I was worried about my family who were praying at the event, and it took a long time to receive any information that they were unharmed. These were very stressful moments. I'm counting the hours until this year's event and hope, please G-d, that everything will pass by peacefully. I need to mend my soul."
"I'm returning to the mountain this year with mixed and very difficult feelings," he said. "Every year, the team prepares itself medically and emotionally for a potential disaster, to prepare for the worst. Last year, unfortunately, that disaster happened. Along with an MDA doctor we went from victim to victim and pronounced their deaths.
"Two things have engraved themselves on my mind – the beautiful face of the child with braces on his teeth, and a phone that kept ringing in one of victims' pockets with, 'My Dear Wife,' on the screen. I knew she was worried about him and wanted to hear good news, but I understood that in just a few moments her life would change forever."
"We immediately sent teams in to the field and received reports of more and more victims," he recounted. "All of a sudden – with the overview – I understood that we are in a mass-casualty event, a real disaster. In my 25 years of volunteering in Magen David Adom, and along with my work with the burial society, I have never come across an incident where so many people were killed in one minute."
"After the moments of singing and dancing, there was a deathly silence. For me, the disaster didn't end on the mountain, it continued in the Segula cemetery where I work for the burial society, and we held four of the funerals. Since the Meron disaster, every time I'm there the memories flood back, each place reminding me of details from this terrible tragedy. I had no doubt I would be back this year. The feeling is different after all the changes that were made at the site. There's no doubt that the danger has been reduced and we hope and pray that Please God everything will be peaceful."
MDA paramedic Maymon Gabay, 40, from Shlomi treated a child who was seriously injured in the disaster: "The incident in Meron shook me considerably. I'm in constant contact with two children who were seriously injured in the disaster and they are both still in the Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem – one of them is the son of my reserve military duty doctor."
"Before the disaster I used to go up to the mountain on almost every Thursday and Friday, but since then I've been going back much less frequently. What was difficult for me was witnessing such a holy event become a tragedy. As someone who has been at the scene of terrible terror attacks, I think it's important that I go back to the scene a year later, to have a better experience. I'm sure that the lessons have been learned from last year, and that this year we will all be able to concentrate on enjoying the event and not need to put our life-saving experience into practice."
David Berger, 40, is a senior EMT from Givat Avni. He is responsible for MDA's Yarden Region First Responders and Medicycles.
"Since joining MDA eight years ago, I have been to Meron every year for the Rashbi event, even throughout [the] corona[virus pandemic]," Berger explained. "The Meron event is an experience and a joyful event of prayers, singing and dancing."
"Like every year the Meron event started with joy, but everything changed in an instant. Reports began to arrive of unconscious victims. We weaved our way through the crowd and arrived at a scene where there were already ten unconscious victims. We were sure that these were all of the victims, we began to resuscitate them, not understanding the scale of the disaster. While we were doing CPR there was chaos, and we were brought more victims, and understood that the incident was even larger.
"I remember every detail from those moments. It's been with me throughout this year and any mention of Meron takes me back to those difficult moments. A week after the disaster we felt the need to go back, we met the MDA's medicycle team to light some memorial candles and shared our difficult experiences. I've waited a year to go back, knowing that this time the site is safer."
MDA paramedic Maor Etedgi, 38, lives in Migdal Ha'emek. He described, "An incident like this is engraved in the memory. I remember every detail of that night. It's my tenth time attending the Meron event, and each year we breathed a sigh of relief that there was no disaster. I was in the Bnei Akiva area where the incident command truck was placed, when the door opened, an EMT stood at the entrance and yelled, 'Take your bags and run to the Toldot Aharon area, there's someone seriously injured.'"
"We took our paramedic bags and ran, along with Omri, Yossi, and Roi. We had to force our way through the people, who didn't yet understand what was happening. As we reached the area we see dozens of victims and hear cries for help, we saw victims who were no longer alive. We divided the tasks between us and started to work automatically, as we've been trained to do under difficult conditions. There was loud music, people screaming, and bodies lying in front of us. These are moments I will never forget.
"I've not been back there since, but it's been with me for the past year. I've been in MDA for 23 years and never been to such a difficult incident. After all the preparations, and the lessons learned from last year, we're going back up to Meron to prepare for the holy task of providing medical cover for those attending, with a feeling and a hope that everything will pass peacefully, but last year's sights will stay with me forever."
MDA paramedic, Omri Hochman, 32, lives in Yavniel. He was the MDA medical commander at the scene.
Hochman recalled, "The first moments, when we ran into the scene, are engraved in my mind. We heard screams for help in one ear, and deathly silence in the other. I remember the difficult sights from that night, sights that have stayed with me since then, and reappear from time to time. This year I'll be on the mountain with the knowledge that lessons were learned from last year and there is a new system, that will hopefully prevent another disaster, and allow everyone to return home in peace."