Over 700 Killed in Crush of Hajj Pilgrims in Saudi Arabia
Two giant waves of Muslim pilgrims collided at an intersection on Thursday near a holy site in Saudi Arabia, and more than 700 people were crushed and trampled to death in the worst disaster at the hajj in a quarter-century.
“People were climbing over one another just to breathe,” said Abdullah Lotfy of Egypt. The hajj, which drew 2 million people from over 180 countries this year, is a huge logistical challenge for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has spent billions of dollars to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims and maintain safety and security at Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina for the annual event. Saudi authorities began an investigation, said Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, adding that initial reports showed two crowds coming from opposing directions converged at an intersection in Mina, on the outskirts of Mecca, when the pushing and shoving started. “Unfortunately, these incidents happen in a moment,” al-Turki said at a news conference. But four survivors questioned how officials managing the flow of people could allow two big crowds going in different directions to intersect on two streets packed with pilgrims.
As of late Thursday, the Saudi civil defense directorate said the death toll was 719, but that probably would rise as bodies continued to be counted and sent to the morgue. At least 863 people were injured, the directorate said.
An AP journalist saw bodies still lying on the ground more than 10 hours after the crush and ensuing stampede in Mina, a large valley containing 160,000 tents for accommodations about three miles from Mecca.
One crowd had just finished a ritual in which pilgrims throw pebbles at three stone columns representing the devil when it ran into another wave of people heading to perform the rite. Sudanese pilgrim Mohammed Awad, 36, and his 56-year-old father were separated when people began pushing and shoving. Awad said he tried to get out of the crush of bodies for about 30 minutes and eventually climbed over a gate with others. It took him an hour before he could look for his father, who was under at least 10 bodies — but still alive. “You can’t count how many bodies there were. They were stacked high,” Awad said. Amateur video on social media showed scores of bodies — many still dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during hajj — lying amid crushed wheelchairs and water bottles on a sunbaked street. Helicopters circled Mina throughout the day, ferrying the injured to hospitals, while military police blocked the streets where the deaths took place.
Saudi Arabia takes great pride in its role as the caretaker of Islam’s holiest sites and host to millions of Muslims who must perform the hajj at least once in their lives. Signs posted around Mecca tell pilgrims that Saudi Arabia is honored to serve them, and the Saudi king takes the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” in reference to the sites in Mecca and Medina. About 100,000 security forces were deployed to manage the crowds and provide security for this year’s hajj, with 5,000 CCTV cameras throughout Mecca and Medina.
Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran immediately blamed the kingdom for mismanagement in the disaster. At least 131 Iranians died, according to the official IRNA news agency, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said Saudi Arabia “is obliged to admit its responsibility.”
It was the second major accident during this year’s hajj season. On September 11, a construction crane crashed down onto the Grand Mosque, killing 111 people and injuring more than 390.
“The reputation of the kingdom is on the line,” said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics. “The fact is, despite everything Saudi Arabia has done, accidents and tragedies continue to happen.”
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Maram Mazen and
Merrit Kennedy in Cairo;d Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran,
contributed to this report.