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 a century.
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
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.
described 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 Abdullah Lotfy.
“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 Abdulrahman. “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.”
Abdulrahman 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
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 decades.
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 crown prince ordered an investigation into the causes of the
stampede, but other officials were quick to shrug off any suggestion of
official failings even before the rescue operations had finished.
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
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
Prince Khaled 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 African nationalities”.
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.
stampede was the worst disaster at the hajj since a similar tragedy in
1990, when more than 1,400 people died after panic broke out among
crowds inside a tunnel.
The trip is one of the five pillars of Islam – it is a religious duty
for able-bodied Muslims to make the journey at least once. Numbers were
once limited by the duration and difficulty of a trip to Mecca, but
rises in income and cheaper air travel has put thepilgrimage within
reach of many more Muslims worldwide.
People gather around the victims of the stampede in Mina. Photograph: AP
Thursday’s tragedy unfolded in Mina, a dusty, overcrowded valley a
few miles outside Mecca where a temporary city of 160,000 tents houses
more than 2 million people for a few days each year.
Its huge crowds have long given the area a grim reputation as one of
the most dangerous parts of the pilgrimage. All pilgrims on the hajj
must file through on a single day to participate in a symbolic stoning
of the devil.
Thousands of people have died in stampedes and fires on its cramped
streets in recent decades, but after more than 300 people died in a
crush in 2006, Saudi Arabia stepped up investment in safety.
They spent millions on improvements, including expanding the “bridge”
where pilgrims throw pebbles at three walls in a symbolic stoning of
the devil into a multi-storey building with entrance and exit ramps.
Helicopters and surveillance cameras monitor crowd movements, and a
strict assigned schedule is intended to control when pilgrims filter
through the most crowded areas.
For nearly a decade there were no major accidents, but local
activists said disorganisation and corruption meant a breakdown of the
system was inevitable.
“We are not that much surprised at the accident. We are expecting
worse every time,” said one Mecca-based Saudi activist, who asked not to
be named because of fears the authorities would punish political
Additional reporting by Hugh Miles.