Calm after chaos at Pilgrimage Site
S'pore tour agency in Mecca does recce of ritual site so pilgrims are safe
After Thursday's horrific stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia, that killed more than 700 pilgrims, Mr Ayoob Angullia was not taking any chances.
Before allowing his agency's 101 pilgrims from Singapore to leave their apartments in the Aziziyah neighbourhood of Mecca, the 60-year-old managing director of Shahidah Travel and Tours sent staff to recce the stoning ritual area to make sure it was safe.
His staff also carried out safety briefings prior to the stoning ritual in apartments, making sure every one knew what to do in an emergency situation.
The atmosphere was calm when Mr Ayoob himself went to the ritual area in Mina yesterday morning.
He said pilgrims clad in their ihram, the white pilgrimage garments, filled the streets again, and any signs of the tragic event that happened the day before had been removed.
"The friendly officers patrolling made sure no one obstructed the paths by sitting or lying down. Any possibilities of stampede were dealt with immediately," he said.
This was in complete contrast to Thursday, when motionless bodies lined the streets of Mina in what was the worst disaster to strike the annual haj pilgrimage in 25 years. In addition to the more than 700 dead, at least 863 pilgrims were injured.
The situation was "chaotic", said Singaporean journalist Suhaimi Mohsen, who was in an area near Mina at the time.
More than 4,000 rescue workers,clad in high visibility vests, scrambled to help the injured.
That same day, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying that all Singaporeans were safe and accounted for, and that it would continue to monitor the situation in Mina.
According to Mr Suhaimi, many streets in Mina were closed on Thursday after the incident. Pilgrims were not allowed to leave their tents.
He said things were returning to normal yesterday morning as crowds of pilgrims made their way to carry out the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual.
The ritual, meant to be a reenactment of a story from the Quran involving the Prophet Ibrahim, is a major component of the haj.
The Saudi Arabian interior ministry said the stampede was caused by two waves of pilgrims meeting at an intersection of two streets. A spokesman added that high temperatures and fatigue might also have been factors in the disaster.
Mr Ayoob said: "I heard that a big gate fell, because the crowds crashed it when they were rushing. The situation went haywire as there was a big flow of people going in and out from the area."
Although most of the Singapore pilgrims had completed their haj by yesterday, some still had not.
Mr Ayoob, who has been working with haj pilgrims for the past 28 years, said: "Singapore pilgrims are well-appreciated by the Saudi authorities. They value their health and safety and obedience to the rules and regulations. They value their lives."
The friendly officers patrolling made sure no one obstructed the paths by sitting or lying down. Any possibilities of stampede were dealt with immediately.
- Mr Ayoob Angullia, managing director of Shahidah Travel and Tours,
'Pilgrims didn't follow rules'
Saudi Arabia yesterday suggested that pilgrims failing to follow crowd control rules bore some blame for a crush that killed more than 700 people at the haj pilgrimage. It was the worst disaster at the event for 25 years.
The kingdom's regional rival, Iran, expressed indignation at the deaths of 131 of its nationals at the world's largest annual gathering of people and its politicians suggested Riyadh was incapable of managing the event.
In a statement posted on his ministry's website, Saudi Health Minister Khalid al-Falih said an investigation would be conducted rapidly and a final toll of dead and wounded calculated.
At least 863 pilgrims were injured.
The statement said: "The investigations into the incident of the stampede that took place today in Mina, which was perhaps because some pilgrims moved without following instructions by the relevant authorities, will be fast and will be announced as has happened in other incidents."
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, however, echoed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in blaming Saudi Arabia for the incident.
"I ask the Saudi Arabian government to take the responsibility of this catastrophe and fulfil its legal and Islamic duties in this regard," Mr Rouhani said in a statement published on the state news agency IRNA.
The disaster was the second deadly accident to hit worshippers this month, after a crane collapse in the holy city of Mecca on Sept 11 killed more than 100 people.
Mr Aminu Abubakar, a Nigerian pilgrim who escaped the crush because he was at the head of the procession, said: "There was no room to manoeuvre."
One outspoken critic of redevelopment at the holy sites said police were not properly trained and lacked the language skills for communicating with foreign pilgrims, who make up the majority of those on the haj.
"They don't have a clue how to engage with these people," said Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. "There's no crowd control."
There was no room to manoeuvre.
- Mr Aminu Abubakar, a Nigerian pilgrim who escaped the crush of bodies because he was at the head of the procession.