Hajj stampede claims lives of more than 700 Muslims. What went wrong?

Saudi officials are defending themselves against mounting criticism that they didn't properly manage the crowds on Thursday.

Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP
Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims make their way to cast stones at a pillar symbolizing the stoning of Satan, in a ritual called "Jamarat," the last rite of the annual hajj, on the first day of Eid al-Adha, in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

The government of Saudi Arabia is facing mounting criticism that it didn’t do enough to manage the crowds of pilgrims completing Hajj in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, leading to a deadly stampede that has killed at least 719 people and injured 863 more.

It is “the worst such incident in a quarter century,” reports NPR.

This year’s pilgrimage to Mecca drew more than two million Muslims from around the world.

Saudi authorities are accustomed to hosting these crowds. “Precautions for crowd-control and safety during the five-day pilgrimage involved about 100,000 security forces,” reported The Christian Science Monitor on Thursday. “At Mina, authorities use surveillance cameras and other equipment to curb too many people from converging on site.”

King Salman of Saudi Arabia has ordered a safety review "to improve the level of organization and management of the movement" of pilgrims completing Hajj, according to the Associated Press.

But some Saudis have angered the international community by suggesting that deaths could have been caused by unruly pilgrims.

Saudi Interior Ministry's security spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki hinted that the problem may have stemmed from some pilgrims not following established guidelines, reported CNN, citing the Saudi Press Agency.

Jamal Khashoggi of Saudi Arabia's El Arab TV told CNN that pilgrims making the journey for the first time might try to "go on their own, or try to take a shortcut.”

Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki said that the fatigue of pilgrims, and high temperatures – soaring above 43 degrees Celsius, or 110 degrees Fahrenheit – might have also played a role in the stampede, according to the AP.

But Iran, which had 131 of its citizens die in the disaster, has accused the Saudis of "incompetence,” urging them to "take responsibility" for the deaths, reported the BBC.

"From the survivors that I spoke to, they say that for them, it's pretty clear that the Saudi authorities didn't manage the crowds properly,” AP reporter Aya Batrawy told NPR.

Some have also said that pilgrims who were in a rush to complete the rituals may have contributed to the chaos. 

Scenes of the scuffle on Thursday show panic, helplessness, and relentless pushing.

As people were making their way back from a ritual that morning, where pilgrims symbolically stone the devil by throwing rocks against stone columns, they ran into another crowd headed toward the site, reported the Monitor.

The stampede erupted on Road 204, an intersection near the five-story Jamarat Bridge in Mina, on the outskirts of Mecca, according to Al Jazeera.

"Heavy pushing ensued. I'm at a loss of words to describe what happened,” one worshipper, Ahmed Mohammed Amer, told CNN. “This massive pushing is what caused the high number of casualties among the pilgrims."

Another pilgrim, Ethar El-Katatney, said to CNN that some of the men who’d been caught in the scuffle warned her about the dangers.

"They told me how if you fell, if you weren't strong enough to withstand the pushing and shoving ... if you fell, you weren't going to get up again," she said.

Pilgrims still completing Hajj on Friday said they were scared, but had faith in their journey.

“Yesterday’s stampede was a catastrophe,” one pilgrim told BBC. “We were shocked, but we can do nothing. Allah bless their souls and we wish Allah will facilitate our pilgrimage.”

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