More Than 700 Pilgrims Killed in Deadliest Hajj Disaster Since 1990

Over 800 more injured in stampede outside Mecca; 'People were climbing over one another just to breathe,' survivor says.

AP/Mosa'ab Elshamy

At least 717 pilgrims were killed on Thursday in a stampede outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi authorities said, the worst disaster to strike the annual hajj pilgrimage in 25 years.

A reported 805 others were injured in the crush at Mina, a few kilometers east of Mecca, caused by two large groups of pilgrims arriving together at a crossroads on their way to performing the "stoning the devil" ritual at Jamarat, Saudi civil defense said.Two survivors interviewed by The Associated Press said the disaster began when one wave of pilgrims found themselves heading into a mass of people going in another 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," said one of the survivors, Abdullah Lotfy, 44, from Egypt. "It was like a wave. You go forward and suddenly you go back."

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Lotfy said that having two flows of pilgrims interacting in this way should never have happened. "There was no preparation. What happened was more than they were ready for," he said of the Saudi authorities.

Later Thursday, King Salman expressed his condolences over the tragic crush and pledged a speedy investigation. He said he has asked for a review of "all existing plans and arrangements ... to improve the level of organization and management of the movement" of pilgrims at the hajj.

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 the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the hajj — intent on following the same set of rituals at about the same time.

The ministry's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, said high temperatures and the fatigue of the pilgrims may also have been factors in the disaster. He said there was no indication that authorities were to blame for the event, adding that "unfortunately, these incidents happen in a moment."

Another survivor, Ismail Hamba, 58, from Nigeria, recalled falling down and then being trampled over by marching pilgrims. "It was terrible, it was really, really terrible," he said.

Thursday's disaster was the worst to befall the pilgrimage since July 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were crushed to death in a tunnel near Mecca. Both stampedes occurred on Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), Islam's most important feast and the day of the stoning ritual.

The hajj, the world's largest annual gathering of people, has been the scene of numerous deadly stampedes, fires and riots in the past, but their frequency was greatly reduced in recent years as the government spent billions of dollars upgrading and expanding hajj infrastructure and crowd control technology.

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In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims were killed in a similar stampede in Mina. A day before the hajj began that same year, the collapse of an eight-story building used as a hostel near the Grand Mosque killed another 73. 

Similarly stampedes and structural collapses have killed over 1,000 people since 1994.  

Despite Saudi Arabia's recent security modifications, earlier this month, a crane collapsed in a storm and crashes onto the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing 111 people and injuring nearly 400.

Safety during hajj is a politically sensitive issue for the kingdom's ruling Al Saud dynasty, which presents itself internationally as the guardian of orthodox Islam and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina.

Upon the stampede this morning, ambulance sirens blared and helicopters hovered overhead 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.

Unverified video posted on Twitter showed bodies, clad in the white toweling of those undertaking hajj, lying on the ground by the side of the road, surrounded by debris, as pilgrims and rescue workers attempted to revive them.

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.

Dozens of bodies could still be seen in the streets at dusk despite the presence of ambulances and refrigerator trucks to haul away the dead.

Reuters reporters in another part of Mina said they could hear police and ambulance sirens, but that roads leading to the site of the disaster had been blocked.

"Work is underway to separate large groups of people and direct pilgrims to alternative routes," the Saudi Civil Defense said on its Twitter account.

It said more than 220 ambulances and 4,000 rescue workers had been sent to the stampede's location to help the injured. Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television channel showed a convoy of ambulances driving through the Mina camp. Some of the wounded were evacuated by helicopters.

An Arab pilgrim who did not want to give his name said he had hoped to perform the stoning ritual later on Thursday afternoon but was now too frightened to risk doing so.

"I am very tired already and after this I can't go. I will wait for the night and if it not resolved, I will see if maybe somebody else can do it on my behalf," he said.

Efforts to improve safety at Jamarat have included enlarging the three pillars and constructing a three-decker bridge around them to increase the area and number of entry and exit points for pilgrims to perform the ritual.

More than 100,000 police and thousands of video cameras are also deployed to allow groups to be dispersed before they reach dangerous levels of density.

"Please pilgrims do not push one another. Please leave from the exit and don't come back by the same route," an officer kept repeating through a loudspeaker at Jamarat.

The latest tragedy is certain to have touched many different countries as the victims likely included pilgrims of different nationalities.

At least 95 Iranian pilgrims perished, according to the official IRNA news agency. Deputy foreign minister, Hossesin Amir Abdollahian, said his ministry summoned the Saudi envoy to Tehran for an official protest over what he called the "inadequate performance of Saudi authorities" in the incident.

Later Thursday, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Saudi authorities to accept their responsibility for the tragedy, which he said was caused by "mismanagement." Khamenei also announced a three-day mourning period in Iran.

The United States expressed its deepest condolences for the victims of the "heartbreaking stampede" outside Mecca. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. joins in mourning for "the tragic loss of these faithful pilgrims."

The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was "deeply saddened" to hear of the deaths, his spokesman said in a statement.

In the Pakistani city of Lahore, Sajida Arif, said her father, Haji Arif, died in the stampede. "Before leaving for the hajj, he told me he had a wish to be buried in Mecca," she said.