At least 717 killed in crush during pilgrimage
Saudi Arabia's safety record for religious pilgrimages was under scrutiny yesterday after at least 717 people died in the worst disaster to strike the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca in 25 years.
At least 863 others were injured in the crush at Mina, a few miles 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 defence said.
Witnesses spoke of horrific scenes, with scores of bodies, many dressed in simple white pilgrim robes, lying on a sunbaked street. The stampede happened at Street 204, one of the two main arteries leading through the camp at Mina to Jamarat.
Sources suggested that a computerised crowd control system that was installed by a British company in the wake of the last major tragedy in 2006 did not cover the area of Mecca where yesterday's deaths took place.
While safety experts said that it was too early to identify the exact cause of the incident, it is likely to raise questions about the authorities' handling of the huge crowds of devout Muslims who visit Mecca every year. The pilgrimage - known as the hajj - is considered the duty of all observant Muslims.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's crown prince who chairs the Saudi hajj committee, ordered an investigation during a meeting with senior officials responsible for the pilgrimage in Mina, where the stampede took place, Saudi Press Agency reported.
According to the Saudi civil defence directorate, the crowd became dangerously congested at the intersection of two streets, known as 204 and 223, as the faithful were making their way towards the Jamarat Bridge, which overlooks the stone columns where pebbles are cast. The bridge's purpose is specifically to ease the pressure of the crowds, which can reach three million during the busiest times of year.
Ambulance sirens blared as rescue crews rushed the injured to nearby hospitals, while more than 220 rescue vehicles and some 4,000 members of the emergency services were deployed to provide alternative exit routes.
Amateur video shared on social media showed corpses lying amid crushed wheelchairs used by some disabled pilgrims.
The tragedy comes despite the Saudi authorities installing sophisticated crowd analytics software which is linked to a central control room where officials can analyse and predict where pinch-points and surges are likely to take place.
It was installed by a British company, CrowdVision, following the deaths of 346 pilgrims in 2006, but the firm said that their equipment did not cover the entire area.
Each year, pilgrims pay hundreds of thousands of euro to go on the religious trip, with people spending between €5,400 and €6,800 for a typical pilgrimage.
Among the pilgrims were individuals from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Senegal.
Professor Keith Still, an expert in crowd behaviour at Manchester Metropolitan University who was a special adviser on the hajj from 2001 to 2005, said that yesterday's incident appeared to have taken place in an area some distance from where previous tragedies had taken place.
He noted from satellite imagery, however, that it appeared to be at a spot where a wider road led to a narrower road. "Wherever that happens there is a potential risk but that is pure speculation at this stage," he said.
Prof Still added: "There is little we can say at this stage beyond it being an epic tragedy. When you have three million people in transit through a city like this, you are already dealing with an extremely congested environment, which poses a significant logistics issue."
He was, however, critical of Saudi Arabia's health minister, Khaled al-Falih, who appeared to blame the pilgrims themselves for the tragedy, saying they had ignored timetables for when to move through the city.
"If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided," Mr Falih told El-Ekhbariya TV.
Prof Still said he was "speechless" at the minister's remarks. "Without knowing the facts, blaming the crowds is not appropriate," he said.
Crowd control experts generally prefer to avoid even using words such as "stampede", as that implies blame on the crowd itself rather than those responsible for managing them.
John Drury, an expert in crowd psychology at the University of Sussex, said: "In general, the reason why there are crowd crushes are because there are problems with management. People can't see how dense a crowd is when they are in one, they have what we call poor 'back to front communication'. So when it goes wrong you cannot blame the crowd because they are not in a position to be blamed."
Safety during the 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.
Said Ohadi, head of Iran's hajj organisation, accused Saudi Arabia of safety errors after at least 90 of its citizens died.
He said that for "unknown reasons" a path had been closed off near the scene of the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, where the accident later took place.
"This caused this tragic incident," he said on Iranian state television.
Iran said it had also set up a special headquarters at the accident site to support Iranian pilgrims.
In Turkey, Mehmet Görmez, head of Turkey's religious affairs directorate, said 18 Turkish pilgrims were missing and were believed to have been in the area where the tragedy took place. (© Daily Telegraph, London)