Thu | Oct 19, 2017

Stampede: More than 700 dead near holy city Mecca

Published:Thursday | September 24, 2015 | 8:51 AM
Muslim pilgrims and rescuers gather around people who died in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage today.

MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP):

A horrific stampede killed at least 717 pilgrims and injured hundreds more today on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the deadliest tragedy to strike the annual hajj pilgrimage in more than two decades.

At least 863 pilgrims were injured in the crush, said the Saudi civil defense directorate, which provided the death toll. The tragedy struck as Muslims around the world marked the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday.

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 two million Muslims taking part.

A crane collapse in Mecca nearly two weeks earlier left 111 people dead.

Saudi Arabia takes great pride in its role as the caretaker of Islam's holiest sites and host to millions of pilgrims annually.

But the hajj poses an immense logistical and security challenge for the kingdom given the sheer number of hundreds of thousands of people — from differing linguistic and cultural backgrounds, many of whom have saved for years for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — intent on following the same set of rituals at about the same time.

Today's crush happened in Mina, a large valley about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Mecca that has been the site of hajj stampedes in years past.

Mina is where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone columns.

It also houses more than 160,000 tents where pilgrims spend the night during the pilgrimage.

Today'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 Saudi 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 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.

Photos released by the directorate on its official Twitter account showed rescue workers helping the wounded onto stretchers and loading them onto ambulances near some of the tents.