World

We watched 5-year-olds suffocate in crush

More than 700 die in haj pilgrimage stampede

It was the worst disaster to strike the annual haj pilgrimage in 25 years.

The accident, witnesses reported on social media, occurred around the area where pilgrims go to perform a ritual - the Stoning of the Devil, a re-enactment of a story from the Quran involving the Prophet Abraham - that takes place during the haj.

The Saudi civil defence directorate said in a statement that the stampede occurred at the junction of Street 204 and Street 223, as pilgrims walked towards the five-story structure which surrounds the pillars, known as the Jamarat Bridge, the BBC reported.

The incident happened when there was a "sudden increase" in the number of pilgrims heading towards the pillars, the statement said.

This "resulted in a stampede among the pilgrims and the collapse of a large number of them", it added.

Photographs uploaded on the Twitter feed of the Saudi civil defence yesterday showed pilgrims lying on stretchers, while emergency workers in high-visibility jackets lifted them into an ambulance.

Videos of the aftermath shared on social media showed scores of lifeless bodies in the street, many covered with the simple white garments pilgrims wear during the haj, The New York Times reported.

One video showed a heap of men lying atop each other, while rescue workers worked to separate the dead from the living and to rescue any survivors.

Ms Ethar El-Katatney, a pilgrim who was near the stampede site about five hours after the surge happened, said she walked past ambulances that were taking bodies of victims. She also said she saw numerous police officers and medical personnel in the area.

"I saw the ambulances, I saw bodies. At least 20, 30 ambulances passed me by," she told CNN over the phone as she tried to reach the pillars herself.

South Africans told Eyewitness News how they watched children as young as five years old suffocate in the crush.

TRIPPED

A woman said she was nearly trampled after she tripped and fell in the crowd.

She said: "I saw everything, we were crying. I saw people lying in the streets dead already, one on top of another. I saw children, babies."

A Saudi minister blamed the pilgrims, saying they had not followed the rules laid out by authorities, AFP reported.

"Many pilgrims move without respecting the timetables" set for the haj, Health Minister Khaled al-Falih told El-Ekhbariya television.

"If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided," he said, vowing a "rapid and transparent" investigation.

A Sudanese pilgrim in Mina said this year's haj was the most poorly organised of the four he has attended.

"People were already dehydrated and fainting" before the stampede, said the pilgrim who declined to be named.

People "were tripping all over each other", he added.

A Saudi companion had warned him that "something was going to happen".

The incident came as the world's 1.5 billion Muslims marked Hari Raya Haji, the Feast of Sacrifice, yesterday.

MAJOR ACCIDENT

It was the second major accident this year for haj pilgrims, after a construction crane collapsed on Sept 11 at Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, killing 109 people including many foreigners.

For years, the pilgrimage was marred by stampedes and fires, but it had been largely incident-free for nearly a decade following safety improvements.

In the last major incident in January 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the stoning ritual.

In 1990, a huge stampede in a tunnel at Mina after a ventilation system failure killed 1,426 pilgrims, mainly from Asia.


WHAT: Massive stampede

WHERE: MINA, ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF THE HOLY CITY OF MECCA, SAUDI ARABIA

WHEN: YESTERDAY

TOLL: At least 717 dead, more than 800 injured

S'pore pilgrims safe: MFA

"We are deeply saddened to hear of the tragic accident at Mina, outside the holy city of Mecca during the annual haj pilgrimage. We would like to convey our deepest condolences to the families of the victims.

"Our Consulate-General in Jeddah has confirmed that the Singapore pilgrims are safe and accounted for. As of 7pm (yesterday), there have been no reports of any Singaporean casualties.

"Ministry of Foreign Affairs will continue to keep in close contact with Singaporeans in the Kingdom as well as Muis, and will monitor developments there closely."

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