Hundreds injured in crush at symbolic stoning ritual, Event plagued by deaths despite safety measures
Salah Nasrawi in Mina, Friday January 13, 2006, The Guardian
Thousands of Muslim pilgrims rushing to complete a symbolic stoning ritual during the hajj tripped over baggage yesterday, causing a crush in which at least 345 people were killed and hundreds injured, despite Saudi attempts to prevent stampedes that have plagued the annual event.
The stampede occurred as tens of thousands of pilgrims headed toward al-Jamarat, three pillars representing the devil that the faithful pelt with stones to purge themselves of sin. TV footage showed lines of bodies laid out on stretchers and covered with sheets.
An Egyptian pilgrim, Suad Abu Hamada, said she heard screaming and saw people jumping over each other. "The bodies were piled up. I couldn't count them - they were too many."
The site is a notorious bottleneck for the huge crowds that attend the annual hajj pilgrimage. A stampede in 1990 killed 1,426 people and another in February 2004 killed 244. Seven of the past 17 pilgrimages have seen fatal incidents.
This year's hajj was also marred by the collapse of a building being used as a hotel that killed 76 pilgrims in Mecca last Thursday.
The stampede happened as pilgrims were rushing to complete the last of three days of the stoning ritual before sunset, an interior ministry spokesman, Major General Mansour al-Turki, said. Some pilgrims tripped over dropped luggage, causing a pile-up, he said. Many pilgrims carry belongings such as tents, clothes and bags of food with them as they move between the stages of the hajj.
Mr Turki said 345 people were killed. The state-run Saudi television station al-Ekhbariyah reported that most of the victims were from south Asia. The health ministry said 289 people were injured.
The pillars are located on a bridge on the desert plain of Mina outside the holy city of Mecca. Mina general hospital, a small hospital close to the site, was filled with injured, and some victims were sent to hospitals in Mecca and Riyadh, Ismail Abdul-Zaher, a doctor at the hospital, said.
The stampede took place despite Saudi efforts to improve traffic at the site, where all 2.5 million pilgrims participating in the hajj move from pillar to pillar to throw their stones, then exit.
Saudi authorities replaced the small round pillars with short walls to allow more people to throw stones without jostling for position. Officials also recently widened the bridge, built extra ramps and increased the time during which pilgrims can carry out the rite, which on the second and final days traditionally takes place from midday until sunset.
About 60,000 Saudi troops had been patrolling the Mina plain since the stoning ritual began on Tuesday. Helicopters flew overhead, and authorities monitored the pilgrims on closed-circuit television. But the security forces often appeared overwhelmed.