Stampede Kills More than 700 at Hajj Pilgrimage near Mecca

Faith Karimi and Schams Elwazer, CNN, September 24, 2015

A stampede during one of the last rituals of the Hajj season–the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca–has killed more than 700 people and injured 800 others in Saudi Arabia.

The stampede occurred Thursday morning during the ritual known as “stoning the devil” in the tent city of Mina, about 2 miles from Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.

Footage taken just after the stampede–obtained by CNN Arabic–shows a disturbing scene. Bodies piled upon bodies, a few moving, but most appearing lifeless. Workers in hard hats and reflective vests can be seen working the edges of the pile of faithful, pulling dead bodies away to get to those who are still alive.

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Hundreds have been killed in past years during the same ceremony, and it comes only 13 days after a crane collapse killed more than 100 people at another major Islamic holy site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

The incident is the deadliest disaster at Mina since 1990, when 1,426 people died.

Civil defense authorities said the latest death toll is 717, but the numbers have been climbing steadily. Officials deployed 4,000 workers, along with 220 ambulances and other vehicles, to Mina in response to the disaster.

In the ritual, crowds of pilgrims throw stones at three pillars in a re-enactment of when the Prophet Abraham stoned the devil and rejected his temptations, according to Muslim traditions.

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In Thursday’s stampede, pilgrims were walking toward the largest of the pillars when there was a sudden surge in the crowd about 9 a.m., causing a large number of people to fall, the Saudi Press Agency said, citing civil defense officials.

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The ceremony was the scene of stampedes and hundreds of deaths in the 1980s and 1990s as pilgrims passed a crowded bottleneck area leading to the small pillars on the ground.

In 2006, a stampede there killed at least 363 people.

After that, the Saudi government erected three massive pillars and completed a $1.2 billion, five-story bridge nearby where pilgrims can toss stones. It was meant to be a roomier atmosphere and a more efficient way to accommodate the faithful.

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Losing one’s life during the Hajj season is considered by many devout Muslims as an entry to heaven.

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More than 2 million Muslims from around the world are attending the annual Hajj pilgrimage this year.

Known as the fifth pillar of Islam, the Hajj is an obligation upon every Muslim who has the financial means and the physical ability to perform it. For most, it is the spiritual climax of their lives, with many saving for decades to make the journey.

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