CAIRO, Egypt -- A stampede at one of Islam's holiest sites crushed to death at least 345 worshippers yesterday, tainting with tragedy the annual hajj pilgrimage to the Muslim religion's birthplace in Saudi Arabia.
As thick waves of worshippers made their way through the desert plain of Mina to perform one of the fundamental rituals of hajj, lost luggage piled up underfoot and tripped pilgrims. With thousands of eager Muslims pressing from behind, the bodies quickly piled up - and the crowd trampled over them. More than 1,000 people were injured in the crush.
The stampede took place as the pilgrims clambered toward a huge pedestrian bridge to throw seven stones at three pillars representing the devil. Mina, a stretch of desert outside the holy city of Mecca, usually draws the thickest crowds of the hajj and has been the scene of similar stampedes during past pilgrimages.
Saudi authorities had widened the bridge and built extra ramps this year in hopes of easing the flow of worshippers. They had also lengthened the time of the rite so that the pilgrims would be less frenzied.
Two million Muslims from all over the world have traveled to the Saudi holy sites this year to participate in the rites of hajj. All Muslims of sound body and financial ability are required to perform the pilgrimage once in their lifetime; the hajj is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith.
"It's a very terrible situation. You know, today we almost died because when the accidents happened they had to stop the flow of people and the people were just pushing over each other," Khaled Batarfi, a Saudi newspaper editor who was close to scene, said in a telephone interview. "You're being pushed from behind and around."
Although banned by the Saudi government from covering the hajj, the Arabic satellite network Al-Jazeera showed live footage of the scene after the stampede. The pictures showed bodies stretched on the ground, covered in white sheets.
An unnamed Libyan pilgrim who said he had witnessed the stampede phoned Al-Jazeera to vent his anger at security forces.
"The Saudi security personnel are to blame. They did not move on time to stop the crisis," he said. "The stampede was well under way for half an hour, and the Saudis did not do anything except shouting on the microphones, asking everyone to calm down. The rescue people or the security should have intervened earlier instead of standing far away and shouting."
A Bahraini pilgrim who called the network also blamed the Saudi authorities.
"From the beginning, I could see there was no one [from security] except the special forces," he said. "They are not trained to handle such a situation. They don't know how to deal with crowds."
Saudi officials were quick to tout the security measures they had put in place, including medical teams and police on standby, after past stampedes. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims were trampled to death in Mecca. Hundreds more were killed in stampedes in 1994, 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2004.
Many Saudis blame the semi-regular tragedies of hajj on the pilgrims themselves. It's not uncommon to hear Saudis complain that the pilgrims are illiterate, or that they arrive from rural areas in developing countries without any idea of how to behave properly in large crowds.
Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.