Thursday, September 24

At least 717 killed, 863 injured in Hajj Stampede: New York Times report

Hajj Stampede Near Mecca Leaves Over 700 Dead
By Ben Hubbard
September 24, 2015 (no time stamp)
The New York Times

[see website for map of where stampede happened and a Reuters video of a survivor's account of the stampede] 

BEIRUT, Lebanon — At least 717 people were killed and 863 injured in a stampede near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday morning.

The deaths — at an intersection in Mina, about six miles east of the city — occurred around 9 a.m. on the first day of Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar, as millions of Muslims were making their pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca.

It appeared to be the deadliest accident during the hajj since 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims perished in a stampede in a tunnel linking Mecca and Mina. And it occurred less than two weeks after a large construction crane toppled and crashed intothe Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing at least 111 people and injuring 394 others.

Thursday’s stampede is likely to intensify fears that Saudi Arabia does not have the transportation and public safety infrastructure to channel and protect one of the world’s largest regular human migrations.

In a statement, the Saudi health minister, Khalid al-Falih, said the stampede may have been “caused by the movement of some pilgrims who didn’t follow the guidelines and instructions issued by the responsible authorities.”

But the high death toll is likely to embarrass the Saudi government, which considers itself the leader of the Muslim world and takes great pride in hosting the millions of pilgrims who visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina each year. One of the titles of the Saudi monarch is “custodian of the two holy mosques,” referring to his personal duty to protect the sites and the pilgrims.

The Saudi civil defense directorate reported the deaths on Twitter and said that two medical centers had been opened in Mina to treat the injured. More than 4,000 emergency workers were sent to the scene, and hundreds of people were taken to four hospitals.

The stampede, witnesses reported on social media, occurred around the area where pilgrims go to perform a ritual — the Stoning of the Devil, a re-enactment of a story from the Quran involving the Prophet Abraham — that takes place during the hajj.

In Iran, officials already angered by the crane collapse complained bitterly about the Saudi government’s role in the disaster, which claimed the lives of at least 89 Iranians.

“Unfortunately, they have not been attending to our injured individuals in their hospitals the way they should,” Qazi Askar, the representative of Iran’s supreme leader for hajj affairs, said in an emotional interview with state television on Thursday. “The point which makes one wonder is that they do not even let our rescue relief teams visit the site and attend to them, or go to hospitals to identify our injured ones. I don’t know what kind of service this is for pilgrims.”

Cellphones and cameras are prohibited from the main sanctuaries, but cameras may be used in the surrounding areas, and videos shared on social media showed scores of lifeless bodies in the street, many covered with the simple white garments pilgrims wear during the hajj. 

One video showed a heap of men lying atop one another as workers in fluorescent yellow vests worked to separate the living from the dead and to rescue any survivors.

With tens of thousands of air-conditioned tents, Mina provides temporary accommodations for many of the more than two million pilgrims who make the hajj to circumnavigate the Kaaba, which sits at the center of the Grand Mosque.

Mina has been the site of multiple deadly accidents over the years.

In 2006, a stampede there claimed more than 360 lives on the eve of the hajj, and a day earlier, an eight-story building near the Grand Mosque collapsed, killing at least 73 people.

In 2001, a stampede in Mina killed around 35 people; in 1998, about 180 pilgrims were trampled there after several of them fell off an overpass during the stoning ritual; in 1997, at least 340 pilgrims were killed in a fire in Mina set off by high winds; and in 1994, about 270 were killed in a stampede there.

Irfan al-Alawi, the executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation and a critic of how the Saudi government has developed Mecca and Medina, said by telephone from Mecca that the stampede had been a result of “poor management” by the government, given the number of past disasters.

Madawi al-Rasheed, an anthropologist and visiting professor at the London School of Economics, said: “There is no accountability. It’s shocking that almost every year there is some kind of death toll.”

The Saudi government began a construction boom around Mecca around a decade ago, at the start of the reign of King Abdullah, who died in January.

“The renovation and expansion are done under the pretext of creating more space for Muslim pilgrims, but it masks land grabs and vast amounts of money being made by the princes and by other Saudis,” Professor Rasheed said.

After the crane collapse, the Saudi government punished the Saudi Binladin Group, a construction conglomerate working on the mosque expansion, by denying it future contracts and banning travel for some of its executives.

The expansion has transformed Mecca. Whole neighborhoods — mostly populated by migrant workers from Yemen, Egypt and other countries — are being bulldozed for new roads and hotels. The topography of the city itself is being altered, as hills are leveled to make way for construction and cranes rise in their place. The most coveted real estate, abutting the grand mosque, is occupied by a cluster of luxury hotels where rooms cost hundreds of dollars a night, even in the off-season.

To ease the crowds, the Saudi authorities have expanded upward, building pedestrian bridges around the holy sites, some of them close to the camp where Thursday’s stampede occurred. A train line linking Jidda, Mecca and Medina is being planned to ease road congestion but has been hampered by delays.

Even before Thursday’s stampede, this year’s pilgrimage season had been marred by mishaps. Last Thursday, about 1,000 pilgrims from Asia had to leave their hotel because of a fire, which injured two Indonesians. This week, about 1,500 pilgrims were evacuated from a 15-story hotel in Mecca when a fire broke out on the 11th floor. Four pilgrims from Yemen were hurt.

A vast majority of pilgrims are not from Saudi Arabia and have not been able to exert pressure on the government to improve crowd control or public safety around the hajj. Professor Rasheed said that officials in the kingdom had avoided responsibility in part by citing the Islamic doctrine that anyone who dies during the pilgrimage — one of the five pillars of Islam, and a duty for all able-bodied Muslims with the means to make the trip — goes to heaven.

On Thursday, the Saudi civil defense directorate said on Twitter, “We ask God to grant the martyrs his mercy.”

Reporting was contributed by Mona Boshnaq from London, Kareem Fahim from Cairo, Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran and Christine Hauser from New York.



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