No fewer than 717 pilgrims were killed on Thursday, while 863 were injured during a stampede which occurred at an Islamic event held in the city of Mina, about two miles from Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
The event was one of the last rituals of the Hajj season, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, which is known as “stoning the devil.”
The Thursday tragedy is the deadliest in the city since 1990 when 1,426 people died in a similar stampede. In 2006, the stampede killed 363 people, Al Jazeerareports.
According to the Civil Defence Authorities in Mina who confirmed 717 deaths in the Thursday incident, the number had been climbing steadily, despite over 4,000 workers deployed along with 220 ambulances to the scene of the disaster.
“We have a stampede accident in Mina, and civil defence is dealing with it,” Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, an Interior Ministry spokesman, told Al Jazeera.
The spokesman added that the injured persons had been evacuated to four different hospitals in the Mina region.
Photographs published on the Twitter feed of the Saudi civil defence on Thursday showed pilgrims lying on stretchers while emergency workers in high-visibility jackets lifted them into an ambulance, Reuters reports.
It reported an unverified video posted on Twitter showing 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.
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.
Mina is where pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone walls. It also houses more than 160,000 tents where pilgrims spend the night during the pilgrimage.
According to Al Jazeera, the incident took place in Street 204, which is a street between pilgrim camps.
It would be recalled that on Friday, September 11, 107 people had lost their lives at another major holy site, The Grand Mosque in Mecca, when a crane collapsed. About 238 persons were injured in same incident.
In the “stoning the devil” Islamic rites, crowds of pilgrims are expected to hurl stones at three pillars in a re-enactment of when the Prophet Abraham stoned the devil and rejected his temptations, according to the Muslim tradition.
The Saudi Arabian government had built three erect massive pillar, and a five-storey bridge nearby completed with $1.2bn, where pilgrims can toss stones. It was meant to be a roomier atmosphere, and a more efficient way to accommodate the faithful.
The PUNCH learnt that at about 9am on Thursday, pilgrims were walking towards the largest of the pillars when there was a sudden surge in the crowd, prompting a large number of people to fall down.
It was gathered that officials had yet to ascertain what led to the sudden surge.
A pilgrim who was near the stampede site, Ethar El-Katatney, told CNN that ambulances were still taking away the bodies of victims five hours after the surge had happened.
She added that numerous police officers and medical personnel had flooded the area.
She said, “I saw the ambulances; I saw the bodies. At least 30 ambulances have passed by me.”
The “stoning ritual” which held on Thursday morning was the third day of the Hajj event, which is being attended by more than two million Muslims from around the world.
It was learnt that Muslim faithful consider losing one’s life during the Hajj season as an entry to heaven.
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 a lot of faithful saving for decades to make the journey.
The Hajj, which is conducted over five days, includes detailed practices such as wearing a special white garment that symbolises equality and unity before God; a circular procession around the Kaaba, the Islam’s holiest shrine, surrounded by Mecca’s Grand Mosque; and lastly, the symbolic stoning.
An Arab pilgrim who did not want to give his name told Reuters 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 is not resolved, I will see if maybe somebody else can do it on my behalf,” he said.
Meanwhile, David Cameron has tweeted: “My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed at the Hajj pilgrimage.”