The death toll from Thursday’s stampede at the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia has risen to 717 and the number of injured has reached 805, state-run Al-Ekbariyah TV reported, citing Saudi civil defense officials.
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.
Civil defense authorities said the latest death toll is 453, but the numbers have been climbing steadily. Officials deployed 4,000 workers and 220 ambulances and other vehicles to Mina to help with the disaster.
In the ritual, crowds of pilgrims throw stones at three pillars — now in a re-enactment of an event 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.
Ethar El-Katatney, a pilgrim who was walking near the stampede site about five hours after it happened, said she could see bodies of victims and numerous police officers and medical personnel.
“At least 20, 30 ambulances passed me by,” El-Katatney 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 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.