Deaths of at least 717 in hajj stampede pose new challenge for Saudi king

Health workers help the injured in Mina, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. More than 717 people were killed and 805 injured in a crushing crowd outside the holy city of Mecca during the annual hajj, or holy pilgrimage.


By AMRO HASSAN AND LAURA KING | Los Angeles Times (TNS) | Published: September 24, 2015

CAIRO (Tribune News Service) — How could it have happened again?

Anguished relatives and stunned pilgrims demanded answers after at least 717 people were killed and 805 injured Thursday in a crushing crowd outside the holy city of Mecca, according to Saudi Arabia’s civil defense directorate.

The stampede occurred in Mina, close to Mecca, during the last major rite of the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, citing civil defense officials. Photos and video from the scene showed white-clad corpses laid out on orange stretchers — rows and rows of them.

It appeared to be the worst disaster in a generation involving the pilgrimage, which drew about 2 million Muslim faithful this year. The hajj, which began this week, culminates in the Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, beginning Thursday.

Civil defense officials said in a statement that rescue teams totaling about 4,000 workers were treating the injured and identifying the dead. Frantic family members of those making this year’s journey flocked to social media to try to determine the fate of loved ones.

The deadly accident posed the latest leadership challenge for Saudi King Salman, who acceded to the throne in January. Almost immediately, Salman shook up the royal line of succession and embarked on an air war against Shiite Muslim rebels in neighboring Yemen, a campaign whose effectiveness has been questioned by military experts and whose heavy civilian death toll has been denounced by human rights groups.

The cause of Thursday’s disaster was not immediately clear, but in the past, such stampedes have taken place when some of those in a tightly packed crowd begin fainting or suffocating in the crush. Researchers say problems arise when people keep moving forward because they can’t see others have stumbled. The ensuing panic then causes more casualties from trampling and asphyxiation.

Abdullah Lotfy, an Egyptian survivor of Thursday’s tragedy, said an oncoming wave of pilgrims suddenly found themselves entangled with a throng moving in the other 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,” Lotfy, 44, told The Associated Press.

Thousands had gathered Thursday for the rite of “stoning the devil,” in which the faithful hurl pebbles at a wall symbolizing Satan. In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims died in a crowd crush during the ritual, and safety improvements were implemented after that episode.

But a death toll about double that of the 2006 stampede raised questions as to whether the oil-rich kingdom, which prides itself on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites, has adequate infrastructure and safeguards for the flood of pilgrims who make up one of the world’s largest regular migrations.

The fatalities were the worst since 1990, when more than 1,400 pilgrims died in a tunnel linking Mina and Mecca.

In that case, the deaths resulted from the lack of adequate planning for crowd flow, said civil and environmental engineering professor Roger Hughes of the University of Melbourne.

“Stoning the first pillar is of uppermost importance,” Hughes wrote of the incident, which he has studied using aerial photographs and mathematical models. “They do not consider positioning themselves to stone the second pillar after the first.”

A solution, Hughes wrote, would be to design a barrier that increased pedestrian flow to the flanks and far side of any pillar. In all, he says, about 2,000 people die worldwide each year from crowding accidents, roughly half as a result of asphyxiation.

Like so much else that occurs in the Persian Gulf region, Thursday’s fatal stampede took on overtones of sectarian rivalry. Shiite Muslim Iran declared three days of mourning and suggested that Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia bore responsibility for the deaths, which state television said included at least 130 Iranian pilgrims. That led to angry exchanges online between critics and defenders of Saudi Arabia.

Some of the outrage was tempered, though, by the belief held by many pious Muslims that death while on the hajj amounts to “martyrdom” and thus guarantees admission to paradise.

A spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, Mansour Turki, said at a news conference in Mina that a special panel would investigate and report its findings directly to Salman.

The pilgrimage is designated as one of the five pillars of Islam, and the devout believe that all Muslims who are physically able should perform the hajj at least once in their lives.

The stampede occurred just days after another deadly incident, when a construction crane collapsed at Mecca’s Grand Mosque during preparations for the pilgrimage, resulting in 109 deaths.

Special correspondent Hassan reported from Cairo and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey. Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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