Hajj pilgrimage: 717 dead in Mecca stampede
Mecca: At least 717
people have been crushed to death in a stampede outside Mecca and more than 850
injured in the deadliest disaster on the annual hajj pilgrimage in a quarter of
Panic broke out when
two groups of pilgrims preparing for one of the last major rites of their trip
collided at the intersection of two narrow streets. Within minutes the tarmac
was a macabre jumble of dishevelled, partially clothed bodies.
The disaster revived
questions about Saudi Arabia’s ability to manage the world’s largest annual
migration, and the tragedy turned political as officials and diplomats began
trading recriminations even before rescue operations had wound up.
The Saudi monarch, King
Salman, ordered a review of the kingdom’s plans for the hajj after the
disaster. Speaking in a live speech broadcast by Saudi-owned al-Arabiya
television, he also said he had asked for a swift investigation into what he
described as a painful incident.
Tehran accused Riyadh
of failing its pilgrims after it emerged that dozens of the dead were Iranian,
while some Saudi politicians appeared to push blame on to the dead themselves,
with one reportedly making racist comments about African pilgrims.
The scale of the
disaster was so vast that rescue teams worked into the evening to evacuate the
injured and bodies of the dead, while security forces kept order among the
thousands of pilgrims still filing through the area to finish their rituals.
losing their loved ones and their clothes, in a frantic scrabble to escape the
deadly crush as it surged down a narrow street with no exits. The toll may rise
further, Al-Arabiya television channel quoted the interior ministry saying.
“I saw someone trip over someone in a
wheelchair and several people tripping over him. People were climbing over one
another just to breathe,” said one of the survivors, 44-year-old Egyptian
“It was like a wave.
You go forward and suddenly you go back,” he told the Associated Press. Other
survivors recounted being turned back from the entrance to tented camp areas as
the crowd surged behind them.
“I saw the pilgrims
were falling down and getting crushed and heard women and elderly people were
screaming, asking for help,” said one survivor, who gave his name as Dr Abdul Rahman.
“I tried very hard to get out, I lost all my clothes, they were torn off but I
didn’t care and I managed to get out”.
“Then I tried to get in
one of the tented camps but I was blocked by the security forces who kept
preventing anyone from entering, and that doubled the crisis.”
Abdul Rahman eventually
collapsed into a camp area when a security guard was distracted, and resisted
attempts to throw him back out. But he said authorities were slow to arrive to
calm the chaos. “I saw the civil defence there but they were very late,” he
said. “I realised that there was a shortage of emergency exits, because there
supposed to be ways of getting off a road every 50 metres.”
The tragedy came just
weeks after a crane collapse killed more than 100 people and injured more than
200 more in the same area, and two hotels had to evacuate thousands of guests
when major fires broke out, also injuring some pilgrims.
The string of major
accidents has revived concerns about management of the hajj pilgrimage, which
brings more than 2 million people to the holiest sites in Islam each year. Thousands
of visitors have died in fires, stampedes and other disasters in recent
Saudi Arabia’s king is
also known as the Custodian of the two Mosques, an acknowledgement of his role
protecting pilgrims and the sites they visit.
The Saudi health
minister, Khalid al-Falih, pointed a finger of blame at the dead themselves,
saying the pilgrims had been undisciplined.
“The accident, as most
know, was a stampede caused by overcrowding, and also caused by some of the
pilgrims not following the movement instructions of the security and hajj
ministry,” he told a local TV channel.
High temperatures and
exhaustion among may have contributed to the disaster, military spokesman Maj
Gen Mansour al-Turki said, but he added there was no indication authorities are
to blame. “Unfortunately, these incidents happen in a moment,” the Associated
Press quoted him as saying.
al-Faisal, head of Saudi Arabia’s central hajj committee, drew criticism on
social media after reportedly blaming the fatal crush on “some pilgrims with
Furious officials in
Tehran accused local authorities of poor management of pilgrims in an area
notorious for overcrowding, after it emerged that as many as 90 of the dead, or
one in 10, may be Iranian. “Saudi Arabia’s officials are to blame for the
incident,” said Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and
African affairs. He has summoned the Saudi envoy in Tehran over the deaths.
The two countries are
old enemies, whose mutual distrust is amplified by sectarian differences. They
have vied for regional influence for decades and are backing opposite sides in
the wars in Yemen and Syria. (With inputs from Agencies)