MECCA, Saudi Arabia – Bodies piled upon bodies. A few people still moving while others appear lifeless. Rescue workers struggling to reach those still alive by pulling the dead out of the way.
A day after a deadly crush killed 717 people during the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, a critical question remained Friday: What caused the chaotic stampede?
Saudi officials are trying to figure out what went horribly wrong this week during the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca and Mina. Some who made the journey said various factors may have played a role.
Too many people, too little time
More than 2 million Muslims from around the world are in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, a pilgrimage that all Muslims who have the financial and physical ability must make at some point in their lives. Many save for decades to make the journey.
And the millions of people must perform a litany of rituals in five days, including the symbolic stoning of the devil in Mina, about 2 miles away from Mecca.
That’s where Thursday morning’s deadly stampede took place, killing 717 people and injuring about 900 more. Thursday was day three of the five-day Hajj.
“There’s so little time to complete the rituals,” Hajj pilgrim Ethar El-Katatney said.
Journalist Khaled Al-Maeena said he believes pilgrims rushing to finish could have been the main reason for the stampede.
“People like to do the first stoning in the morning,” he told CNN from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
At the stoning ritual in Mina, pilgrims hurl rocks at three walls and pillars called the Jamarat in a re-enactment of when the Prophet Abraham stoned the devil to reject his temptations.
Extreme heat and exhaustion
The journey is physically grueling enough on its own.
With temperatures soaring over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, anyone who succumbs to the elements might collapse and never recover, El-Katatney said.
“I was out for a couple of hours just kind of taking photos, recording. And just two hours standing in the sun makes you so dizzy and so incredibly faint,” she said from Mina.
“But regardless, people were still continuing to … their ritual, where the stampede happened.”
El-Katatney said the sight of the carnage was simply “horrendous.”
“It’s literally a pile of bodies of people who … pushed, they shoved, they panicked, they screamed,” she said. “It was hot, someone fell, others trampled and they got stampeded.”
El-Katatney said she talked to some of the men who were caught in the mayhem.
“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.”
Crushed from opposite directions
El-Katatney said pilgrims were trying to push their way in opposite directions — some headed to the site of the stoning, some coming back from their previous ritual.
“As our group started to head back, taking Road 204, another group, coming from Road 206, crossed our way,” said another worshipper, Ahmed Mohammed Amer.
“Heavy pushing ensued. I’m at a loss of words to describe what happened. This massive pushing is what caused the high number of casualties among the pilgrims.”
After the stampede, it took hours for rescue workers to try to tend to all those trampled.
“The ambulances, the sirens were overwhelming,” El-Katatney said. “For hours and hours, you could hear them constantly.”
Inexperience and confusion
Even though Saudi officials are extremely versed in hosting Hajj crowds, many of the pilgrims are making the journey for the first time and might not be prepared to follow all directions or handle the chaos.
“If any mistake happens — if a group makes the wrong turn — that will cause a disaster,” Jamal Khashoggi of Saudi Arabia’s El Arab TV told CNN on Friday. “And that’s exactly what happened yesterday.”
Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, the Saudi Interior Ministry’s security spokesman, hinted that the problem may have stemmed from some pilgrims not following established guidelines, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
Novice pilgrims might try to “go on their own, or try to take a shortcut,” Khashoggi said.
A deadly history
Hundreds of other pilgrims have been killed during the same ceremony in years past. But Thursday’s disaster was the deadliest at Mina since 1990, when 1,426 people died.
The latest calamity also came 13 days after a crane collapse killed more than 100 people at another major Islamic holy site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
After a stampede during Hajj killed 363 people in 2006, the Saudi government erected three massive pillars and completed a $1.2 billion, five-story bridge near the site where pilgrims can toss stones.
After the latest mass tragedy, many are wondering what more can be done to prevent another disaster.