And death lay in wait
TEN MINUTES was all it took for the stampede in Mina to leave behind a mountain of bodies, mostly of pilgrims from South Asia. When I first set out for the Jamarat bridge around 5 a.m. to stone the devil's pillars, just minutes away from the media guesthouse, there was no sign of what lay ahead. Everything seemed normal. One could see two distinct flows of human traffic on the bridge:Updated: Jan 14, 2006 01:31 IST
TEN MINUTES was all it took for the stampede in Mina to leave behind a mountain of bodies, mostly of pilgrims from South Asia.
When I first set out for the Jamarat bridge around 5 a.m. to stone the devil's pillars, just minutes away from the media guesthouse, there was no sign of what lay ahead. Everything seemed normal. One could see two distinct flows of human traffic on the bridge: one moving towards east to stone the pillars, the other going to west (having completed the ritual). Both waves of pilgrims were separated by the central line of the bridge, as it ought to be.
Traditionally, stoning on the final day is supposed to be carried out between noon and sunset. However, a shia fatwa this year allowed more liberal timings, enabling shias to complete their stoning in the early hours of Thursday.
Nevertheless, most sunnis preferred to stick to the traditional timings, which meant that some 80 lakh pilgrims would occupy the two-km bridge for four hours. And death lay in waiting.
By noon, the orderly crowd gave way to a sudden surge of pilgrims. The Saudi officials immediately pressed another fleet of choppers to monitor the crowd.
The only way to detect a stampede is from the air, a medical officer told me. On ground, despite a 60,000 force of paramedics, scouts and policemen, it was difficult to make sense of the crowd. Right after the noon prayers, an alert was sounded by the choppers over some four lakh pilgrims leaving the Masjid-e-Kaif.
These devotees had just finished their namaz and were headed to the stoning area but had not reached the bridge just yet. The Saudi officials' deja vu was spot on.
The advancing crowd, marching towards the pillars aggressively like soldiers headed to the front, could spell trouble on the already packed bridge.
However, there was no way to stop them. Another batch of about one lakh was preparing to leave the bridge after the stoning. A third batch -- from the tented area - was also headed for the bridge. None of three formations knew they were on a deadly collision course.
Saudi officials attributed the stampede to unruly pilgrims with luggage. "We think the stampede was caused because some people stumbled on luggage."
Around 1.30 p.m., a stream of siren-blaring ambulances reached the spot after thousands of Saudi scouts cordoned off a part of the bridge for emergency vehicles. There was no security clearance to visiting media team to go to the spot. "If you go you will do it at your own risk," an information ministry official said.
All we could do was to watch bodies being loaded on to refrigerated trucks from atop a makeshift television tower overlooking the bridge.
First Published: Jan 14, 2006 01:31 IST