Bodies piled four deep as haj pilgrims struggled for breath

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
Survivors of a deadly stampede at the haj in Islam’s holy city described how they clambered to safety over metal barriers as bodies piled up four deep around them.

At least 719 people died and 863 were wounded in the crush yesterday morning, which began as crowds walked from Mina to Mecca. King Salman of Saudi Arabia appeared on live television last night to order an immediate investigation into the worst disaster at the haj for a quarter of a century.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, immediately blamed the Saudi ruling family and said that they must accept responsibility for the deaths of 131 Iranians in the crush. “Mismanagement and improper actions have caused this catastrophe,” he said. “The Saudi government should accept the responsibility of this sorrowful incident.”

Thousands of people were making their way to Rami al-Jamarat, where a stoning ritual takes place as part of the five-day pilgrimage, when disaster struck at about 9am.

Crowds were moving in both directions along a narrow road lined with metal barriers through Mina, a tent city that provides temporary accommodation to half of the haj’s two million annual visitors, about five miles from the Grand Mosque.

Witnesses said that with the numbers swelling and temperatures already rising in the desert, pilgrims caught in the middle of the opposing lanes of traffic at the intersection of streets 204 and 223 had panicked.

“There were literally thousands of people passing each other in opposite directions. The pushing and shoving started in the middle, so we called out to people to calm down,” said Ibrahim, 32, from Mali, who had paused briefly on the side of the road to allow his wife to rest. “Suddenly one person fell on the ground, and then another, and then another in the centre, tripping up others as they went. Then it happened. It was like someone hit the panic button,” he said.

“The only way we could escape was to climb up to barricades that mark enclosures in front of the tents, and to scream at them to stop.”

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