Singapore

Pilgrims recount their harrowing experience

Student recalls terrifying smell of petrol after Mecca crash that killed Singaporean pilgrim and injured several others

In the chaos after the tour bus she was in collided with a trailer truck, student Siti Shuhaidah Salleh, 21, feared the worst.

"Both the front and back doors of the bus were stuck, the air smelled of petrol. All of us were afraid the bus was going to explode, people were screaming," she said, adding that most of the passengers were sleeping at the time of the accident.

Eventually, someone forced a way out via the luggage compartment near the back door.

The injured and immobile were carried out through the small gap.

Ms Siti Shuhaidah was one of 31 Muslim pilgrims on the bus in the accident in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, last Tuesday.

Haji Mohammad Abu Bakar Osman, 64, director of Abu Bakar Travel Services, the family-run travel agency behind the trip, was killed in the crash.

There were emotional scenes at Terminal 2 in Changi Airport as 29 of the pilgrims returned yesterday afternoon. More than 50 relatives and friends at the airport greeted them with tearful hugs.

Hajah Fauziah Alias, 63 - Mr Abu Bakar's wife - and two other pilgrims are still hospitalised in Saudi Arabia.

The group of 33 had arrived in Mecca on March 12 for an umrah, or minor pilgrimage. Two of them stayed in the hotel while the rest were headed to Taif, a city about 1½ hours away from their hotel, when the accident happened.

Mr Abu Bakar's nephew Muhd Dion Khudairi Mohamed Ali said his uncle planned Taif as a surprise destination on the itinerary. He believes the trailer was making an illegal U-turn on the two-lane highway when the bus collided with it.

Following the crash, there was a scramble to get everyone clear of the bus, said Mr Muhd Dion Khudairi, 46, who was hurt.

Ms Siti Shuhaidah's first instinct after the crash was to look for her family - and she realised her 74-year-old grandfather and sister had been flung to the front of the bus. They both had minor injuries.

Her uncle, 46, had the most severe injury of her six relatives on the trip with a dislocated hip. She herself escaped with minor injuries, including a cut on her chin.

It was when the pilgrims were safely at the side of the road that they realised their tour leader was not among them.

"Paramedics brought his body out, covered in a white cloth, about half an hour later," she said, adding that the pilgrims cried quietly and said prayers as they filed past the body.

Mr Abu Bakar's sister Aina Osman, 68, was emotional as she spoke about her brother yesterday. "I'm just imagining he is one of those coming back... it feels like he is still on umrah."

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, who was at the airport to greet the pilgrims, said that agencies like the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, the Association of Muslim Travel Agents Singapore, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are helping the families affected.

ACCIDENTS FIRE FLOOD