From the news desk

Security men pleaded with Hajis to stay back: report

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Tragedy struck Mina on day three of the five-day pilgrimage on Thursday, when 717 people were killed in a massive crush and 805 others injured. The accident comes close on the heels of a crane crash in Makkah’s Grand Mosque two weeks ago in which 111 people, mostly pilgrims, perished. Eyewitness accounts were contradictory. Some said one large group of pilgrims was on its way to performing the dangerous ritual of the stoning of the devil on a bottleneck close to Souq Al-Arab Street on their way to Jamrat, clashing with another group that was coming back after completing the ritual from the same road. The Interior Ministry said the stampede appears to have been caused by two waves of pilgrims meeting at an intersection.

Eyewitnesses told Arab News that it was jostling by some stronger pilgrims caught behind a slower group including elderly people that led to the disaster.
They said security personnel were pleading with pilgrims to stay back, but they were too caught up in their fervor to listen and continued to press ahead, resulting in a stampede.

Egyptian pilgrim Abdullah Lotfy, 44, said: “I saw someone trip over someone in a wheelchair and several people tripping over him. People were climbing over one another just to breathe.”

The stampede took place at around 8 a.m., at a time when two million pilgrims had marched into this tent city from nearby Muzdalifa, where they had spent Wednesday night under the open skies collecting their 50 pea-sized pebbles to perform the stoning ritual.

A visit to the accident site two hours after the tragedy revealed terrifying scenes. Bodies, clad in ihram — the two pieces of seamless cloth that pilgrims wear — were piled up by the hard shoulder of the street known as Sharea Al-Jadid, lying in heaps, their skin flayed off their bodies by the crush.

But many bodies showed no visible injuries and looked paradoxically peaceful, spread-eagled by the side of the road. A doctor at hand said most of them died of suffocation.

Survivors sat weeping inconsolably in the 45-degree heat, seeking any shade they could find in the concrete-and-rubble desert, completely traumatized by what they had seen. One old man was clinging to the lifeless body of a relative. Medics had to pull out the corpses one by one.

Immediately after the accident, ambulances raced to the scene and carried the dead and the injured to hospitals in and around Mina. Most of the injured were too shocked to speak, and many were unconscious.

Throughout the day, the wailing of ambulances rent the air dampening the morale of the tired and exhausted pilgrims. The authorities and representatives of pilgrims advised them to refrain from performing the stoning ritual. Helicopters hovered overhead, alerting officials on the ground to bottlenecks. However, at the multistory Jamrat Complex, pilgrims continued to stone the devil, and many of them headed to the Grand Mosque to perform tawaf or circumambulation of the Kaaba.
Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, himself performing Haj, visited the scene immediately after the tragedy.
Indian Consul General B.S. Mubarak said consular officials were able to indentify some Indians among the injured. But he said the street where the accident took place was not the one that Indian pilgrims normally take to Jamrat.

“Indian pilgrims go via Souq Al-Arab Street and Al-Jawhara Street, both of which are one-way going into the direction of the Jamrat Complex. This street is the one where our pilgrims come back after performing the stoning ritual,” he told Arab News.

Later in the day, Mubarak confirmed the death of one Indian from Jhakhand who had come for Haj duty. “His name is Neyazul Haque and he was working in Yanbu,” he said. Three other Indians are reported missing. Pakistani diplomats were at the scene assessing the situation. There are reports that some Pakistanis were among the victims.

According to officials, most of the victims were of African, Arab and Iranian origin. The inquiry committee will reveal why those in charge of the pilgrim movement allowed pilgrims to head into that street from both directions.  The tragedy has cast a pall of gloom over the festive season and the entire Muslim world, occurring on a day when Muslims in the Arab world were celebrating the Eid Al-Adha.

“This is a tragedy that has completely shattered us,” said a woman outside Mina Al-Jisr Hospital. “I have never seen death from such a close quarter. I don’t know how I survived.”

Most of the injured and dead were taken to Mina Emergency Hospital, Mina Al-Jisr Hospital and other hospitals in Makkah, Muzdalifa and Arafat. ARAB NEWS

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