Mina, Saudi Arabia: At least 717 pilgrims were killed on Thursday in a stampede outside the holy city of Makkah, Saudi authorities said, the worst disaster to strike the annual Haj pilgrimage in 25 years.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef orders probe into deadly Haj stampede.
At least 805 others were injured in the crush at Mina, a few kilometres east of Makkah, caused by 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 on their way to performing the “stoning the devil” ritual, according to the Saudi civil defense directorate.
The multi-story structure, known as Jamarat Bridge, is designed to ease the pressure of the crowds and prevent pilgrims from being trampled. Ambulance sirens blared as rescue crews rushed the injured to nearby hospitals.
Thursday’s disaster was the worst to befall the pilgrimage since July 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were crushed to death in a tunnel near Makkah. Both stampedes occurred on Eid Al Adha, Islam’s most important feast and the day of the stoning ritual.
Photographs published on the Twitter feed of the Saudi civil defence on Thursday showed pilgrims lying on stretchers while emergency workers in high-visibility jackets lifted them into an ambulance.
The Haj, the world's largest annual gathering of people, has been the scene of numerous deadly stampedes, fires and riots in the past, but their frequency was greatly reduced in recent years as the government spent billions of dollars upgrading and expanding Haj infrastructure and crowd control technology. Some 2 million people are taking part in this year’s Haj, which began Tuesday.
Unverified video posted on Twitter showed bodies, clad in the white terry clothes of those undertaking Haj, lying on the ground by the side of the road, surrounded by debris, as pilgrims and rescue workers attempted to revive them.
Street 204, where the stampede occurred, is one of the two main arteries leading through the camp at Mina to Jamarat, the site where pilgrims ritually stone the devil by hurling pebbles at three large pillars. In 2006, at least 346 pilgrims died in a stampede at Jamarat.
Reuters reporters in another part of Mina said they could hear police and ambulance sirens, but that roads leading to the site of the disaster had been blocked.
“Work is underway to separate large groups of people and direct pilgrims to alternative routes,” the Saudi Civil Defence said on its Twitter account.
It said more than 220 ambulances and 4,000 rescue workers had been sent to the stampede's location to help the injured.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television channel showed a convoy of ambulances driving through the Mina camp. Some of the wounded were evacuated by helicopters.
An Arab pilgrim who did not want to give his name said he had hoped to perform the stoning ritual later on Thursday afternoon. “I am very tired already and after this I can't go. I will wait for the night and if it not resolved, I will see if maybe somebody else can do it on my behalf," he said.
Saudi authorities have taken extensive precautions to ensure the security of the Haj and the safety of pilgrims.
Efforts to improve safety at Jamarat have included enlarging the three pillars and constructing a three-decker bridge around them to increase the area and number of entry and exit points for pilgrims to perform the ritual.
More than 100,000 police and thousands of video cameras are also deployed to allow groups to be dispersed before they reach dangerous levels of density.
“Please pilgrims do not push one another. Please leave from the exit and don’t come back by the same route,” an officer kept repeating through a loudspeaker at Jamarat.
Preparations for this year's Haj were marred when on September 11 a construction crane collapsed at Makkah’s Grand Mosque, killing 109 people.
Leaders condole loss of lives
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has condoled the loss of lives in the Haj stampede. “Distressing news from Makkah. Pained at loss of lives due to the stampede. Condolences to families of the deceased and prayers with the injured,” the prime minister said in a message from the US.
An Indian woman from Telangana was among the Haj pilgrims killed, an official of the Telangana State Haj Committee said in Hyderabad. Another Indian from Lakshadweep was among the injured, Kerala Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala told the media in India.
India’s main opposition Congress party president Sonia Gandhi also expressed deep shock and distress over the deaths.
UAE pilgrims safe
Abu Dhabi: His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, has called the official UAE pilgrims delegation to follow up the situation of UAE pilgrims at the holy land. Shaikh Mohammad also conveyed his Eid Al Adha congratulations to all.
Meanwhile Dr Mohammad Mattar Al Kaabi, Chairman of the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments, head of the State Office for Pilgrims Affairs in the holy land confirmed that the stampede, which occurred in Mina camps on Thursday morning, was completely away from the Emirates pilgrims' camps.
Al Kaabi assured in a statement to Emirates News Agency (WAM) at the conclusion of a meeting with all the heads of committees of the Official Hajj Mission in the Mission’s operations headquarters that the UAE pilgrims are safe.
Major Haj-related incidents
Every year, millions of Muslims converge on the Saudi holy cities of Makkah and Madina for the annual Haj, with the massive ceremonies representing a massive security and logistical challenge for the kingdom’s authorities. Here’s a look at some past incidents:
2006: More than 360 pilgrims are killed in a stampede at the desert plain of Mina, near Makkah, where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone walls. The day before the Haj began, an eight-story building being used as a hostel near the Grand Mosque in Makkah collapsed, killing at least 73 people.
2004: A crush of pilgrims at Mina kills 244 pilgrims and injures hundreds on the final day of the Haj ceremonies.
2001: A stampede at Mina during the final day of the pilgrimage ceremonies kills 35 Haj pilgrims.
1998: About 180 pilgrims are trampled to death in panic after several of them fell off an overpass during the final stoning ritual at Mina.
1997: At least 340 pilgrims are killed in a fire at the tent city of Mina as the blaze was aided by high winds. More than 1,500 were injured.
1994: Some 270 pilgrims are killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual at Mina.
1990: The worst Haj-related tragedy claims the lives of 1,426 pilgrims in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Makkah.