Families searching for loved ones after deadly hajj stampede

Lata Jain

Mina – At least 220 people were killed and hundreds wounded in a stampede at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, in the second tragedy to strike the pilgrims this year.

The stampede, one of the worst incidents to hit the hajj in nearly a decade, broke out during the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, the Saudi civil defense service said.

Safety measures were in place at the site — one where fatal stampedes have been frequent. The tragedy marked the worst disaster at the annual pilgrimage, or hajj, since 1997, when 340 pilgrims died in a fire at the overcrowded Mina tent camp

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

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had converged on Mina on Thursday to throw pebbles at one of three walls representing Satan, the ritual that marks the last day of the hajj.

Thursday’s ritual was taking place at a five-storey structure known as the Jamarat Bridge, which cost more than $1 billion to build, and which was used during earlier pilgrimages.

Almost one kilometer long, it resembles a parking garage and allows 300,000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the ritual.

The faithful had gathered until dawn Thursday at nearby Muzdalifah where they chose their pebbles and stored them in empty water bottles.

They had spent a day of prayer Wednesday on a vast Saudi plain and Mount Arafat for the peak of the hajj pilgrimage.

The civil defense directorate said on its Twitter feed that another 400 people were injured in the incident at Mina, about 5 km (3 miles) from Mecca.

Rescue operations are reportedly under way, it added. Families are hunting for their loved ones who are wounded or dead in the major stampede.

Many participants are elderly, and Muslims believe that if a person dies while performing the pilgrimage they will go straight to heaven.

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