The death toll from a stampede at the annual pilgrimage to Mecca has risen to 717, Saudi officials say, in the worst disaster at the holy site in 25 years.
The stampede, which happened at Mina, on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca, also left at least 805 people injured, according to Saudi Arabia’s civil defence directorate.
It happened in a street between pilgrim camps, Street 204, at Mina, a few kilometres east of Mecca where pilgrims stay for several days during the climax of the haj. It is one of two main arteries leading through the camp to Jamarat, where pilgrims ritually stone the devil by hurling pebbles at pillars – the last major rite of the pilgrimage.
Camps at Mina, a temporary city of 160,000 tents for the millions who go on the annual pilgrimage, are organised by the Saudi authorities according to geographic origin. Ziyad Yousef, an eyewitness, told Channel 4 News that it took place in the African section, suggesting that most of the victims are likely to come from that continent.
Ziyad said that when he went to throw stones at the pillars, “things were busy but seemed to be flowing”. He said that pilgrims suddenly noticed hundreds of police officers and troops running off to another section.
It was only after he returned to his accommodation that he realised the scale of the disaster.
Amal Fayad, a pilgrim from Egypt, described how her husband was killed in Mina. She said: “We were coming back from the Jamarat, and on the way back, I met ]my husband] and he was going to the Jamarat. [The pilgrims] began pushing each other, and they pushed people to the ground.
“I was about to die. My husband was with me…he died, died.”
The Saudi Civil Defence authority said that more than 220 ambulances and 4,000 rescue workers had been sent to the stampede’s location to help the wounded. A convoy of ambulances were shown on the Al-Arabiya television channel driving through the Mina camp.
“The injured have been distributed to four other hospitals in the Mina area,” a reporter for the Saudi-owned channel said. “Some of the injured have been evacuated by helicopters to hospitals in Mecca city.”
Distressing images from the scene showed bodies heaped on the ground amid the carnage. Some of the people appeared to alive, but struggled to free themselves from underneath those who had died.
Roads leading to the site of the disaster were blocked to prevent further crowds developing.
History of deadly incidents
September 2015 At least 107 people are killed and scores wounded when a crane collapses in bad weather, crashing onto the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.
January 2006 More than 360 pilgrims are killed in a stampede at the desert plain of Mina, near Mecca. The day before the haj began, an eight-story building being used as a hostel near the Grand Mosque in Mecca collapsed, killing at least 73 people.
February 2004 A crush of pilgrims at Mina kills 244 pilgrims and injures hundreds on the final day of the haj ceremonies.
March 2001 A stampede at Mina during the final day of the pilgrimage ceremonies kills 35 haj pilgrims.
April 1998 About 180 pilgrims are trampled to death in panic after several of them fell off an overpass during the final stoning ritual at Mina.
April 1997 At least 340 pilgrims are killed in a fire at the tent city of Mina as the blaze was aided by high winds. More than 1,500 were injured.
May 1994 Some 270 pilgrims are killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual at Mina.
July 1990 The worst haj-related tragedy claims the lives of 1,426 pilgrims in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.
However, Tehran soon blamed the Saudi administration for the loss of 40 Iranian lives. “Today’s incident shows mismanagement and lack of serious attention to the safety of pilgrims,” Said Ohadi, head of Iran’s haj organisation, said. “The Saudi officials should be held accountable.”
The Saudi government were criticised after the health minister, Khaled al0Falih, claimed that the tragedy happened after undisciplined pilgrims failed to follow instructions.
This is the latest tragedy to hit the holy city, but the worst since 1990, when 1,426 were killed in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.
Earlier this month, 110 people were killed after a crane collapsed at Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
Such disasters are politically sensitive for the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud dynasty, which presents itself internationally as the guardians of orthodox Islam and custodians of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina.
This year, there were 1.95 million pilgrims for the haj, including 1.38 foreigners, according to the Saudi press agency.
Rashid Mogradia, of the Council of British Hajis, which looks after the welfare of pilgrims who are going to Mecca, said that he estaimtes that at least 20,000 Britons have gone to complete haj, based on speaking to tour operators.
Philip Hammond, Britain’s foreign secretary, said that staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were checking hospitals and other locations “to urgently gather information about British nationals who may require assistance”.
The Saudi government has launched an investigation into the tragedy. A spokesman told reporters that high temperatures caused victims to fall, and that there was a higher number of pilgrims in the area than usual.
The causes for the apparently high volume were not given. “We always work to prevent the reasons behind the stampede to stop it from happening again,” a spokesman told Al Arabiya.
On its Twitter account, the Civil Defence authority said: “Work is underway to separate large groups of people and direct pilgrims to alternative routes.”
The disaster comes despite massive infrastructure upgrades and spending on crowd control technology over the past two decades after a series of major incidents at the holy city, including in 2006, when at least 346 pilgrims were killed as they attempted to perform the stoning of the devil at Jamarat.
Thursday has traditionally been the most dangerous day of the pilgrimage because vast numbers of pilgrims attempt to perform rituals at the same time in a single location.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: “We are in contact with local authorities and urgently seeking more information following reports of a crush during the Hajj pilgrimage at Mecca.”
British Muslims in mourning
The tragic events in Mecca have cast a pall over celebrations of Eid al-Adha, one of the two most important festivals in the Muslim calendar.
Known as the Festival of the Sacrifice, or the Greater Eid, it marks the end of Hajj and is celebrated around the world.
This morning, Haroon Mota, 29, was returning to his home in Coventry after finishing his Eid prayers when he received a message from his mother revealing the stampede in Mina, where his younger brother Suleman is.
"I stopped the car and got straight onto social media by the side of the road, to see what was going on," he said.
After he went home, he continued checking media, while trying to remain "optimistic and reassuring" for his family, but secretly fearful of "what happens if you see your brother dead on the video - it's horrific".
At one point, another brother thought he saw Suleman in some of the footage.
After a couple of hours or so, Suleman called his mother to say he was fine. "We were so relieved. Thank god he's happy and safe and well," he said.
"Now we can carry on and celebrate Eid, but at the same time, our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected."