Death toll reportedly climbs to at least 1,100 in Saudi Arabia hajj stampede
An estimated 2 million people are undertaking the traditional hajj pilgrimage. Reuters, citing Saudi state television, reported that the stampede took place in Mina, a tent city located approximately three miles east of Mecca itself. The area is on the main road from the center of Mecca to the Hill of Arafat, revered by Muslims as the place where Muhammad gave his farewell sermon to Muslims who had accompanied him to Mecca near the end of his life.
It was the second major disaster during this year's hajj season, raising questions about the adequacy of measures put in place by Saudi authorities to ensure the safety of the roughly 2 million Muslims taking part in the pilgrimage. A crane collapse in Mecca nearly two weeks earlier left 111 people dead.
Photos released by the Saudi civil defense directorate on its official Twitter account showed rescue workers in orange and yellow vests helping the wounded onto stretchers and loading them onto ambulances near some of the white tents.
Many of the victims were crushed and trampled to death as they were on their way to perform a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone columns in Mina.
Two survivors interviewed by The Associated Press said the disaster began when one wave of pilgrims found themselves heading into a mass of people going in another direction.
"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, Abdullah Lotfy, 44, from Egypt. "It was like a wave. You go forward and suddenly you go back."
Lotfy said that having two flows of pilgrims interacting in this way should never have happened. "There was no preparation. What happened was more than they were ready for," he said of the Saudi authorities.
King Salman ordered the creation of a committee to investigate the incident.
The Interior ministry's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, said high temperatures and the fatigue of the pilgrims may also have been factors in the disaster. He said there was no indication that authorities were to blame for the event, adding that "unfortunately, these incidents happen in a moment."
Another survivor, Ismail Hamba, 58, from Nigeria, recalled falling down and then being trampled over by marching pilgrims. "It was terrible, it was really, really terrible," he said.
Thursday's tragedy struck during 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, according to the 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 and helicopters hovered overhead as rescue crews rushed the injured to nearby hospitals. More than 220 rescue vehicles and some 4,000 members of the emergency services were deployed soon after the stampede to try to ease the congestion and provide alternative exit routes, according to the directorate.
Amateur video shared on social media showed a horrific scene, with scores of bodies — the men dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during hajj — lying amid crushed wheelchairs and water bottles along a sunbaked street.
Survivors assessed the scene from the top of roadside stalls near white tents as rescue workers in orange and yellow vests combed the area.
International media covering the hajj, including The Associated Press journalists in Mina, were restricted from visiting the site of the accident for several hours and from immediately leaving an Information Ministry complex where the press is housed during the final three days of the pilgrimage, per government rules.
There has been a history of crowd tragedies during the hajj, which every Muslim is required to complete at least once in their life.
In 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede at the entrance to a bridge leading to the site in Mina where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone walls. In 2004, 244 people were trampled to death on the final day of the hajj ceremonies.
In the lead-up to this year's hajj, at least 111 people are killed and scores wounded when a crane collapsed in bad weather and crashed onto the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site.
However, none of these tragedies comes close to matching the deadliest recorded accident during a hajj. That happened in 1990, when 1,426 were trampled or suffocated in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to Mecca's holy sites.
The latest tragedy is certain to have touched many different countries as the victims likely included pilgrims of different nationalities.
Sudanese pilgrim Mahmoun Mahmoud, 55, witnessed what he said appeared to be pilgrims from many different countries.
At least 89 Iranian pilgrims perished and 150 were injured in Thursday's crush, according to the official IRNA news agency. The chief of the Iranian hajj organizing agency, Saeed Ohadi, blamed Saudi Arabia for "safety errors" and said in comments to Iranian state TV that "mismanagement by the Saudis" led to the tragedy.
No Egyptian nationals died according to initial reports but Egypt's hajj delegation executive president, Maj. Gen. Sayed Maher, said 30 Egyptians were injured in the deadly stampede.
The United States expressed its "deepest condolences" for the victims of the "heartbreaking stampede" outside Mecca. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. joins in mourning for "the tragic loss of these faithful pilgrims."
The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was "deeply saddened" to hear of the deaths, his spokesman said in a statement.
In the Pakistani city of Lahore, Sajida Arif, said her father, Haji Arif, died in the stampede. "Before leaving for the hajj, he told me he had a wish to be buried in Mecca," she said.