Over 700 dead in Hajj stampede

Deadliest accident since 1990; authorities unsure of number of Pakistani casualties


Afp/APP/sehrish Wasif September 24, 2015
Ambulances arrive with pilgrims, who were injured in a stampede, at a hospital in Mina. PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD/ MINA:


A huge stampede left at least 717 pilgrims dead and hundreds more injured near Makkah in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, the deadliest disaster on the annual Hajj pilgrimage in over a quarter of a century.


Tragedy hit when two large groups of pilgrims preparing for one of the last major rites of their trip met on an intersection of two roads leading to the main site, Saudi authorities said.

Nearly two million Muslims from across the globe are attending this year’s Hajj – one of the largest annual gatherings in the world. The Hajj officially ends on Sunday.

The Saudi civil defence directorate said at least 863 pilgrims were injured in the stampede in Mina, where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone walls. The area houses more than 160,000 tents where the pilgrims spend the night during the pilgrimage.

The injured were shifted to four different hospitals in the region.

A Saudi minister blamed the pilgrims for the tragedy, saying they did not follow the rules laid out by the authorities. “Many pilgrims move without respecting the timetables,” Saudi 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 has ordered an investigation into finding why procedures and protocols were not followed.

The stampede became the second deadly accident to hit the pilgrims this month following a crane collapse in Mecca that left at least 109 people dead.

Bodies of pilgrims wearing the traditional white cloth – Ihram – were left scattered, surrounded by the victims’ shoes, flattened water bottles and crushed umbrellas.

The stampede started at around 9am near Street 204 outside the Jamarat Bridge structure, where the devil stoning takes place. The five-storey bridge has been erected in the last decade at a cost of more than $1 billion, intended to improve safety. Almost one-kilometre long, it resembles a parking garage and allows 300,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the stoning ritual.

A hospital official told AFP a group of pilgrims leaving the area collided with another group that was either moving in the opposite direction or was camped outside.

Helicopters were flying overhead and ambulances were rushing the injured to hospital, reporters at the scene said. Over 4,000 rescue workers rushed to the scene to offer first aid and load the injured pilgrims into helicopters and hundreds of ambulances. At one hospital, a steady stream of ambulances discharged pilgrims on stretchers.

Foreign embassies were working to identify and assist their citizens caught up in the stampede.

Iranian authorities claimed at least 43 Iranian nationals had died in the Mina stampede. At least two Indonesians were confirmed dead, the Jakarta Post reported. NDTV said two Indians were among the victims.

Confusion among Pakistani officials

Almost 12 hours after the deadly stampede, Pakistani authorities were still unsure of the number of Pakistani victims or even if there were any.

Foreign Office spokesperson Qazi Khalilullah said his office had no information regarding the number of Pakistanis who embraced martyrdom or suffered injuries during the tragic incident.

He claimed the FO was in contact with Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia who was also performing Hajj and was present in Mina at the time the stampede broke out.

When questioned about media reports on the death of seven Pakistani pilgrims, Khalilullah said: “I can only confirm the number of dead or injured once I get the details from the ambassador, who is visiting hospitals and gathering information.”

Ulema Council Chairman Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, who is also in Mina, told The Express Tribune that Saudi authorities had reported two casualties of Pakistani pilgrims while the Pakistan Hajj Mission director had talked about seven to eight casualties.

The contact number of Pakistan’s Hajj Mission in Mina is +966125277537 and can be called for information about the Pakistanis affected by the crush.

Condolences

President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have expressed grief and sorrow over the death of pilgrims in the Mina stampede.

PM Nawaz directed the FO and the religious affairs ministry to remain in contact with the Saudi authorities and extend all assistance to the Pakistani pilgrims in Mina and their families and relatives.

President Mamnoon also sympathised with the bereaved families and prayed for the forgiveness of the departed souls. He directed the Pakistani diplomatic staff in Saudi Arabia to gather information about the well-being of all Pakistani pilgrims.

Improving safety

For years the pilgrimage was marred by stampedes and fires, but it had been largely incident-free for nearly a decade following safety improvements. In the last major accident, 364 pilgrims died in a stampede during the same ritual in January 2006.

A similar tragedy in 1990 left more than 1,400 pilgrims dead after a stampede broke out inside a tunnel.

Official figures released Thursday said 1,952,817 people had performed this year’s Hajj with almost 1.4 million of them foreigners.

Significant incidents during Hajj

May 24, 1994

A stampede killed at least 270 pilgrims at the stoning ritual.

Apr 15, 1997

A fire caused by a gas stove rips through a camp housing pilgrims at Mina, killing 343 and injuring around 1,500.

Apr 9, 1998

More than 118 people are killed and 180 injured in a stampede at Mina.

Mar 5, 2001

35 pilgrims, including 23 women, die at Mina.

Feb 11, 2003

14 faithful, including six women, die on the first day of the stoning ritual.

Feb 1, 2004

251 people are killed in a stampede at Mina.

Jan 12, 2006

364 pilgrims are killed in a stampede at Mina.

Jan 6, 2006

76 people die when a hotel collapses in the city centre.

Sep 11, 2015

109 people are killed and hundreds injured, when a crane collapses on Makkah’s Grand Mosque.

Sep 24, 2015

A stampede in Mina, near Makkah, leaves 717 people dead and hundreds injured.

 

Published in The Express Tribune, September 25th, 2015.

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