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Survivors question how Hajj stampede spiraled out of control

More than 700 people have died in a stampede during the annual hajj pilgrimage just outside Mecca. The disaster has raised fresh questions about Saudi Arabia’s management of the annual migration, in the wake of another deadly accident at the Grand Mosque. Gwen Ifill learns more from Aya Batrawy of the Associated Press.

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    Tragedy struck the Muslim world today, marring the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. At least 719 people were killed when worshipers panicked and stampeded. More than 860 others were hurt.

    It was a scene of horror in a place of holiness. Cell phone video captured the gruesome aftermath, with bodies littering the streets. Saudi officials said the stampede started when two waves of pilgrims collided.

  • KHALID AL-FALIH, Saudi Arabian Health Minister (through interpreter):

    The accident was caused by overcrowding and also by some of the pilgrims not following the movement instructions of the security and the hajj ministry. However, this is God's will.


    The disaster unfolded in Mina, a valley about three miles outside Mecca. Separate surges of people met at an intersection with Street 204, a main road that leads through thousands of tents to Al Jamarat. There, the faithful perform the symbolic stoning of the devil, a ritual of throwing pebbles at columns.

    But, on this day, many never got there. Instead, ambulances and rescue crews struggled desperately to get the injured through packed streets to nearby hospitals. Others were taken by helicopter.

    Survivors recall the sheer terror of being engulfed.

  • WOMAN (through interpreter):

    We were coming back from the Jamarat, and on the way back, I met my husband and he was going to the Jamarat. The pilgrims began pushing each other and they pushed people to the ground. I was about to die.


    It was the second major disaster of this year's hajj season. Less than two weeks ago, high winds sent a giant construction crane crashing into Mecca's Grand Mosque. It killed more than 100 people and injured nearly 400.

    The twin tragedies raised new questions about safety measures the Saudis have implemented to prevent a repeat of past disasters. The deadliest came in 1990, when at least 1,400 pilgrims died during a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel.

    Now Saudi King Salman has ordered an investigation into what caused today's stampede.

    Aya Batrawy is covering the story for the Associated Press. I spoke to her from Saudi Arabia a few minutes ago.

    Aya Batrawy, thank you for joining us. We know you're there in Mina, Saudi Arabia, the site of that horrific tragedy today. One of the things we watched, seeing this from a distance, we wonder is, how did it get so out of control?

  • AYA BATRAWY, Associated Press:

    And that's what the survivors I spoke to also are questioning, how this could happen in 2015, at a time when the Saudi government has been hosting the annual hajj pilgrimage for decades now?

    What the survivors told me was there was a large crowd heading toward the facility behind me to perform one of the final rites of hajj when another crowd coming back from the facility intersected with them. And at that point, people started shoving and trying to get past one another.

    And that's when people started tripping, falling over each other, falling over wheelchairs. People were suffocating, bodies were piling up. And the streets just turned into complete chaos and mayhem and, as we see today, over 700 people dead, and the death toll is expected to rise.

    I was there at the scene 10 hours after this happened, and there were still bodies lying on the ground. There were still helicopters trying over trying to ferry the wounded. There were still bodies being picked up. I saw emergency lights being brought in, which means clearly they're going to be working through the night to try and figure out what happened, as well as trying to get to people.


    As we have reported before, this is not the first time there's been this kind of stampede at the hajj, and is this — are there safety concerns that have been worked out in advance by authorities designed to avoid just this outcome?


    I mean, definitely, authorities here spend billions of dollars every year to prepare for the hajj and to make the hajj as comfortable and safe as possible for the pilgrims. They're spending $60 billion to expand the Grand Mosque that houses the cube-shaped Kaaba, which is a central part of the hajj, a location where people go for the hajj pilgrimage.

    They have spent — there's 100,000 security forces deployed this year for safety, for crowd management. There's 5,000 CCTV cameras set up everywhere to monitor people for the flow of the crowds. It's a logistical challenge. And so that's kind of the question now, is, how did this happen? Who allowed these two — what agencies — what happened that these two crowds were able to intersect?

    Because, normally, what happens are that there are roads that are just one-way, so that crowds don't end up clashing into one another, so there will be roads that are one-way going one way and roads going another way, and that way pilgrims can avoid this kind of thing.


    You mentioned all of the renovations and the money being spent at the Grand Mosque. And yet there was an accident there also earlier this week, where 100 people were killed in a crane collapse. Do they know what happened there yet?


    There's still an investigation into that crane collapse, but I also spoke with survivors there. It was a horrific, horrific scene. It was very unexpected.

    People were praying, looking toward the Kaaba. It was exactly almost two weeks ago today that it happened, when stormy — a storm happened, a thunderstorm, and wind came out unexpectedly. And one of the largest cranes around the mosque that's currently working on the expansion collapsed.

    So, what authorities are saying is that wind was the cause, but they're also saying that the giant construction company the Saudi Binladin Group, which was the operator of the crane, was also partly faulted for not following operating procedures there.

    So, obviously, this is something — there are two accidents that have happened in the last two weeks, extremely devastating for the pilgrims here. But also I think for the king, whose legacy is tied to the pilgrimage, his title is custodian of the two holy mosques, in reference to two holy sites, one of them being Mecca.

    It's something that everyone is taking very seriously and everyone is planning to see how, you know, this can be avoided again.


    Aya Batrawy of the Associated Press, thank you for talking us on the scene tonight.


    Thank you.

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