Riyadh, Sep 24 (IANS) An Indian woman from Telangana was among the 717 people killed on Thursday in a horrific Haj stampede in Saudi Arabia, the worst tragedy to hit the world’s holiest Muslim pilgrimage in 25 years.
Another Indian, from Lakshadweep, was among the 805 pilgrims injured in the disaster that took place on the first day of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice.
The incident took place near Mina and about five kilometres from Makkah, the Saudi Civil Defence said.
Indian leaders expressed distress over the deaths and injuries as it emerged that Bibi Jaan, an elderly resident of Hyderabad, had died and an unidentified man from Lakshadweep had been injured in the tragedy.
With some 136,000 pilgrims from India, the Indian government said it was closely monitoring the situation.
Thursday’s stampede took place barely two weeks after a massive crane fell in Makkah’s grand mosque, killing over 100 people and injuring over 200. Eleven of the dead were Indians.
This was also highest number of deaths after 1990 when 1,400 people were killed in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel.
It was not clear what caused the stampede on Thursday in the pilgrimage that draws millions from around the world and which had been incident free for nearly a decade.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV reported that the head of the Central Haj Committee, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, had blamed the stampede on “some pilgrims with African nationalities”.
But the head of Iran’s Haj organization, Said Ohadi, told IRNA news agency that two routes to the Jamarat Pillars had been inexplicably closed by the Saudi authorities, resulting in a build-up of pilgrims.
Thursday’s ritual was taking place at a five-storey structure known as the Jamarat Bridge, which cost more than $1 billion to build and was used during earlier pilgrimages, media reports said.
Almost one kilometre long, it allows 300,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the ritual.
Saudi security forces and rescuers poured into the disaster site within minutes after the tragedy. But by then hundreds were dead on the streets, and the injured were in agony and distress.
More than 4,000 rescue workers and over 200 emergency vehicles worked feverishly to help the wounded and transport the dead.
The injured cried out in agony as survivors tried to help the wounded pilgrims. Many of the injured suffered bruises and lacerations.
Photographs released by the Saudi Civil Defence showed some pilgrims seated amid a sea of bodies, many bare chested and clearly from all parts of the world.
Rescuers rushed the injured on stretchers to hospitals. Saudi authorities, overwhelmed by what had happened, quickly updated the death toll.
A Haj pilgrim from Lakshadweep was among the injured, Kerala Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala said in Thiruvananthapuram. He did not identify the pilgrim by name or gender.
About two million Muslims are taking part in this year’s Haj pilgrimage, which began on Tuesday.
There were conflicting reports on where Thursday’s stampede took place.
The Saudi Civil Defense initially said the incident happened amid a rush at the stoning as part of Haj rituals. Muslim pilgrims throw stones on a wall representing the devil.
Al Jazeera, however, said the deaths took place on a street between pilgrim camps.
“The street is named Street 204. This stampede did not happen during the stoning of the devil ritual,” an Al Jazeera correspondent said.
The Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia has seen several disasters that have claimed 2,788 lives in the past 25 years.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, now in the US, condoled the loss of lives. “Distressing news from Mecca. Pained at loss of lives due to the stampede. Condolences to families of the deceased and prayers with the injured.”
Congress president Sonia Gandhi expressed shock and distress.
National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said: “Prayers with the injured and with the loved ones of the deceased.”
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal added: “Terrible tragedy. Prayers for all.”