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Stampede kills more than 700 at pilgrimage

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MECCA — A stampede during one of the last rituals of the Hajj season — the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca — has killed more than 700 people and injured 800 others in Saudi Arabia.

The stampede occurred Thursday morning during the ritual known as “stoning the devil” in the tent city of Mina, about 2 miles from Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.

Hundreds have been killed in past years during the same ceremony, and it comes only 13 days after a crane collapse killed more than 100 people at another major Islamic holy site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

“We have a stampede accident in Mina, and civil defense is dealing with it,” said Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

The incident is the deadliest disaster at Mina since 1990, when 1,426 people died.

Civil defense authorities said the latest death toll is 717, but the numbers have been climbing steadily. Officials deployed 4,000 workers, along with 220 ambulances and other vehicles, to Mina in response to the disaster.

In the ritual, crowds of pilgrims throw stones at three pillars in a re-enactment of when the Prophet Abraham stoned the devil and rejected his temptations, according to Muslim traditions.

In Thursday’s stampede, pilgrims were walking toward the largest of the pillars when there was a sudden surge in the crowd about 9 a.m., causing a large number of people to fall, the state-run Saudi Press Agency said, citing civil defense officials.

Information on what led to the surge wasn’t immediately available.

A risky pilgrimage

Ethar El-Katatney, a pilgrim who was near the stampede site about five hours after the surge happened, said she walked past ambulances that were taking bodies of victims. She said she saw numerous police officers and medical personnel in the area.

“I saw the ambulances, I saw bodies. … At least 20, 30 ambulances passed me by,” she told CNN by phone as she tried to reach the pillars herself.

The ceremony was the scene of stampedes and hundreds of deaths in the 1980s and 1990s as pilgrims passed a crowded bottleneck area leading to the small pillars on the ground.

In 2006, a stampede there killed at least 363 people.

After that, the Saudi government erected three massive pillars and completed a $1.2 billion, five-story bridge nearby where pilgrims can toss stones. It was meant to be a roomier atmosphere and a more efficient way to accommodate the faithful.

The ritual

The stoning ritual is done over at least two days, where pilgrims stone the three pillars at Mina — believed to be where the devil was stoned when he tried to dissuade Abraham from obeying God’s orders to slaughter his son. According to tradition, the event was a test from God, who gave Abraham a ram to slaughter instead.

Thursday was the third day of the Hajj.

On September 11, just days before this year’s Hajj started, a construction crane crashed through the roof of another eminent Hajj destination, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing 107 people. At least 238 others suffered injuries when a powerful storm toppled the crane.

Losing one’s life during the Hajj season is considered by many devout Muslims as an entry to heaven.

A spiritual climax

More than 2 million Muslims from around the world are attending the annual Hajj pilgrimage this year.

Known as the fifth pillar of Islam, the Hajj is an obligation upon every Muslim who has the financial means and the physical ability to perform it. For most, it is the spiritual climax of their lives, with many saving for decades to make the journey.

The pilgrimage, conducted over five days, includes detailed rituals such as wearing a special white garment that symbolizes human equality and unity before God; a circular procession around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, surrounded by Mecca’s Grand Mosque; and the symbolic stoning.

It was also a tragic day for Muslims in Yemen on Thursday, where at least 29 people attending Eid prayers died when a bomb went off inside a crowded mosque in Sanaa.