At least 717 people including four Indians were killed and more than 800 injured in a stampede Thursday on the outskirts of Mecca, reports quoting Saudi civil defence officials said.
The tragedy, the deadliest in more than two decades, happened in Mina, a large valley about five kilometers (three miles) from the holy city of Mecca that has been the site of haj stampedes in years past.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had converged on Mina to throw pebbles at one of three walls representing Satan, the ritual that marks the last day of the haj.
The stampede occurred in a morning surge of pilgrims at the intersection of streets 204 and 223 as the faithful were making their way toward a large structure overlooking the columns, according to the Saudi civil defence directorate.
The multi-story structure, known as Jamarat Bridge, is designed to ease the pressure of the crowds and prevent pilgrims from being trampled.
At least four Indians, including a woman and a volunteer were among the hundreds killed in the stampede, consulate officials in Saudi Arabia said.
This included a man from Kerala identified as Mohammed from Kodungaloor in Thrissur district, a woman from Hyderabad indentified as Bibi Jaan and Maqbool Alam, a resident of Doomri in Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district.
Two Indians from Assam were among the injured and have been admitted to hospital.
Blame game begins
Iran said at least 90 of its citizens died, and accused Saudi Arabia of safety errors.
But a Saudi minister blamed the pilgrims themselves, saying they had not followed haj rules.
“Many pilgrims move without respecting the timetables” set for the haj, health minister Khaled al-Falih told El-Ekhbariya television.
“If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who chairs the kingdom’s haj committee, met senior pilgrimage officials in Mina and ordered an investigation, the official Saudi Press Agency reported. The findings will be submitted to King Salma.
It was the second major disaster during this year’s haj season, raising questions about the adequacy of measures put in place by Saudi authorities to ensure the safety of the roughly 2 million Muslims taking part. A crane collapse in Mecca nearly two weeks earlier left more than 100 people dead.
Our emergency Nos in Makkah continue to remain open: 00966125458000 00966125496000 Toll free number for pilgrims in Kingdom: 8002477786— Vikas Swarup (@MEAIndia) September 24, 2015
Amateur video shared on social media showed a horrific scene, with scores of bodies - the men dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during haj - lying amid crushed wheelchairs and water bottles along a sunbaked street.
Survivors assessed the scene from the top of roadside stalls near white tents as rescue workers in orange and yellow vests combed the area.
Interior ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said the stampede was caused when “a large number of pilgrims were in motion at the same time at an intersection of two streets in Mina.
“The great heat and fatigue of the pilgrims contributed to the large number of victims,” he said. Temperatures in Mina had reached 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit) on Thursday.
Some 2 million people are taking part in this year’s haj pilgrimage, which is an obligation of every able-bodied Muslim. Saudi authorities take extensive precautions to ensure the security of the haj and the safety of pilgrims.
Officials use surveillance cameras and other equipment to limit the number of people converging on the site, and the Jamarat Bridge has multiple exits to facilitate the flow of people.
But tragedies are not uncommon.
The death toll from Thursday’s stampede far exceeded that of a similar incident in 2006, near the site of the latest incident, when more than 360 pilgrims were killed in a stampede. Another stampede at Mina in 2004 left 244 pilgrims dead and hundreds injured.
The deadliest haj-related tragedy happened in 1990, when at least 1,426 pilgrims perished in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.
Thursday’s stampede happened less than two weeks after a giant construction crane came crashing down on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the focal point of the haj.
That accident, on Sept. 11, killed at least 111 people and injured more than 390.
Authorities blamed the crane collapse on high winds during an unusually powerful storm, and faulted the construction giant Saudi Binladin Group, which oversees construction at the mosque, for not following operating procedures