How to Survive a Crowd Crush After the Meron Tragedy

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Overcrowding, disorder, and misunderstanding occurred last Thursday night when tens of thousands of people assembled at Mount Meron to celebrate the Lag Ba’omer festival, resulting in a stampede – or crowd crush – and the tragic deaths of 45 people.

While there is “no golden rule,” according to Paul Wertheimer, an independent expert who has written 600 publications on the issue of crowd management and who worked with the Israeli Police in 2002 on a textbook for how to handle dispersing a crowd in the wake of a terror attack, there are best methods for surviving a stampede.

1 – Stay on your feet

When masses of people rush to the same place fast, it can become every man for himself. Wertheimer’s first advice: “it is critical to stay on your feet.”

He said that just one small push can be enough to throw a handful of people off balance. To help maintain footing, he says to stand with your leg staggered for balance.

“Put your arms up like a boxer,” he explained.

In super tight crowds, that separation will help protect your heart and lungs from what could amount to thousands of pounds of chest crushing pressure.

2 – If you do fall, stay off your stomach or back

Next, he said, if you do fall, do everything you can to get up and immediately help others who have fallen or are lying down. If you cannot get up, then protect your head and bring your legs close to your body.

“Lay on your side to protect your most vital organs,” he said.

3 – Go with the flow

According to Wertheimer, crowds flow like a river and you should not go against the tide.

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“Move in the direction of least resistance,” he said. “This will likely be a diagonal or lateral move away from the origin of the crush force. Repeat this process until you are out of danger.”

He said look for space between people to slowly move out of danger. If possible, look for cover – such as a garbage can, light post or even a doorway, which can serve as a barrier between you and everyone else.

Of course, if you drop something, leave it.

4 – Remain calm and alert

“You do not want to yell and screen,” Wertheimer stressed. “No one can really hear you, and in the case of a crowd crunch you do not want to use up too much oxygen.”

Oxygen loss can lead to fainting. So, if you do need to communicate, try to do it through non-verbal communication, such as hand signs, eye contact or facial expressions.

But he admitted that “there is no golden rule that will get you out of every situation like this. After a point it does not matter how big or strong you are or if you are an expert,” Wertheimer said. “If you get caught in a crowd crush, you are in trouble and you may not survive.”

As such, he offered another piece of advice:

5 – Proper planning 

Wertheimer has been in the field for nearly 40 years and has seen too many situations strikingly similar to the one Israel witnessed over the weekend. He said they are most often failures of management than anything else.

He said the scene at Meron was reminiscent of another Israeli tragedy: the 1995 Arad Festival disaster. The concert was oversold, and masses of people attempted to enter the event through passages that were too narrow. Ultimately, three boys were crushed to death.

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Also similar to Meron: the 2015 hajj in Saudi Arabia where thousands of religiously charged worshipers were trampled and crushed to death. Pilgrims were heading toward the holy pillars at which they are meant to throw seven stones while others were coming from the opposite direction. It became chaotic, people started climbing on top of each other, and ultimately were crushed to death or died because they could not breathe.

Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca on September 21, 2015 (Credit: REUTERS/AHMAD MASOOD)Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca on September 21, 2015 (Credit: REUTERS/AHMAD MASOOD)

Israel knew of the challenges at Mount Meron. A 2008 State Comptroller’s report and a 2016 Police report warned of issues with infrastructure and crowd control.

The reports explained that the mountain area could not physically accommodate the event, lacked escape routes and access roads to provide rescue in the event of an emergency, and that the crowds who attend are often “undisciplined” to the point of uncontrollable.

These warnings were never heeded. Each year approval was given to hold the event.

“The problem in the crowd safety field is that we keep making the same mistakes,” Wertheimer said. “These are repeat tragedies.”

He warned that the world could see more crowd crushes this year as people emerge from the coronavirus crisis.

“The world needs to take heed at what occurred in Israel, which is somewhat post pandemic,” he said. “Crowd energy is going to be high because people have been cooped up. There is a lot of pent-up energy.

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“What happened in Israel is the first of events that may happen afterwards if we don’t plan and pay attention.”

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