Incidents during the Hajj
There have been many serious incidents during the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, that have caused the loss of thousands of lives. Every follower of Islam is required to visit Mecca during the Hajj at least once in his or her lifetime, if they can afford to and are able to do so. During the month of the Hajj, Mecca must cope with as many as four million pilgrims.
Jet travel makes Mecca and the Hajj more accessible to pilgrims from all over the world. As a consequence, the Hajj has become increasingly crowded. City officials are required to control large crowds and provide food, shelter, sanitation, and emergency services for millions. Unfortunately, they have not always been able to prevent disasters. The stoning of the devil ritual is the most dangerous part of the pilgrimage because of the huge crowds, particularly as they cross the massive two-layer flyover-style Jamarat Bridge that affords access to the pillars.
Stampedes and failures of crowd control
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Sometimes the surging crowds, trekking from one station of the pilgrimage to the next, cause a stampede. Panic spreads, pilgrims jostle to avoid being trampled, and hundreds of deaths can occur as a result. The stoning of the devil ceremony is particularly crowded and dangerous. Some notable incidents include:
- July 2, 1990 : A stampede inside a pedestrian tunnel (Al-Ma'aisim tunnel) leading out from Mecca towards Mina, Saudi Arabia and the Plains of Arafat led to the deaths of 1,426 pilgrims, many of them Malaysian, Indonesian and Pakistani of origin.
- May 23, 1994 : A stampede killed at least 270 pilgrims at the stoning of the Devil ritual.
- April 9, 1998: at least 118 pilgrims were trampled to death and 180 injured in an incident on Jamarat Bridge.
- March 5, 2001: Thirty five pilgrims were trampled to death in a stampede during the stoning of the Devil ritual.
- February 11, 2003: The stoning of the Devil ritual claimed 14 pilgrims' lives.
- February 1, 2004: 251 pilgrims were killed and another 244 injured in a stampede during the stoning ritual in Mina.
- January 12, 2006: A stampede during the ritual ramy al-jamarāt on the last day of the Hajj in Mina killed at least 346 pilgrims and injured at least 289 more. The incident occurred shortly after 13:00 local time, when a busload of travellers arrived together at the eastern access ramps to the Jamarat Bridge. This caused pilgrims to trip, rapidly resulting in a lethal crush. An estimated two million people were performing the ritual at the time.
Following this incident, the Jamaraat bridge and the pillars representing satan were demolished and reconstructed. A wider, multi-level bridge was built, and massive columns replaced the pillars themselves. Now, each level of the bridge allows easier and safer access to the columns representing satan. The picture to the right shows a view of one level POST-construction. It was taken the year after the 2006 incident. In addition, the stoning ceremony must be carried out according to pre-determined schedules to prevent over-crowding and the attendant risks. The Jamarat basin has been expanded from its current circular shape into an oval to allow better access to the pillars. The new arrangements provide for separate access and departure routes.
- December 1975: An exploding gas cylinder caused a fire in a tent colony and resulted in the deaths of 200 pilgrims.
- April 15, 1997: 343 pilgrims were killed and 1,500 injured in a tent fire in MINA on 8 zillhijja between 10 am to 12 pm, see also Mecca fire of 1997. The tents are now fireproof.
- November 1, 2011: Two pilgrims, a man and his wife died in a coach fire. There were two coaches in the convoy, and a person in the second coach noticed smoke billowing from the coach in front. He radioed the driver to stop. Everybody evacuated the coach, and as the last two were getting out, the coach suffered three explosions.
Protests and violence
- November 20, 1979: A group of about 200-500 militants occupied the Grand Mosque, and later were expelled by Saudi Arabian Troops, Pakistani and French forces (three Frenchmen, reportedly, who were converts to Islam), leaving about 250 dead and 600 wounded.
- July 31, 1987: Iranian pilgrims rioted, causing the deaths of over 400 people.
- July 9, 1989: Two bombs exploded, killing 1 pilgrim and wounding another 16. Saudi authorities executed 16 Kuwaiti Shia Muslims for the bombings after originally suspecting Iranian.
Mingling of visitors from many countries, some of which have poor health care systems still plagued by preventable infectious diseases, can lead to the spread of epidemics. If an outbreak were to occur on the road to Mecca, pilgrims could exacerbate the problem when they returned home and passed their infection on to others. This was more of a problem in the past. One such disease, which has prompted response from the Saudi government, is meningitis as it became a primary concern after an international outbreak following the Hajj in 1987. Due to post-Hajj outbreaks globally of certain types of meningitis in previous years, it is now a visa requirement to be immunised with the ACW135Y vaccine before arrival. Every year, the Saudi government publishes a list of required vaccines for pilgrims, which for 2010 also includes yellow fever, polio, and influenza.
As of 9 September 2013[update], the Saudi government asked "elderly and chronically ill Muslims to avoid the hajj this year" and have restricted the numbers of people allowed into the country due to Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). On 1 November 2013, a woman who had recently travelled to Saudi Arabia, for the Islamic pilgrimage, Hajj, contracted the disease and is in Spain. Although MERS-CoV was not detected among pilgrims, this does not rule out risk of the disease at hajj.
- The El Tor strain of cholera was discovered in six pilgrims returning from hajj at the El-Tor quarantine camp in Egypt, in 1905.
Al Ghaza hotel collapse
A concrete multi-story building located in Mecca close to the Grand Mosque collapsed on January 5, 2006. The building, the Al-Ghaza Hotel, is said to have housed a restaurant, a convenience store, and a hotel. The hotel was reported to have been housing pilgrims to the 2006 Hajj. It is not clear how many pilgrims were in the hotel at the time of the collapse. As of the latest reports, the death toll was 76 and the number of injured was 64.
Other fatal events
- Before the beginning of the first day of the December 2006 Hajj, 243 pilgrims had died, according to a statement by the Saudi government. The majority of deaths were reportedly related to heart problems, exhaustion in the elderly and people with weak health, caused by the heat and tiring physical work involved in the pilgrimage. After the conclusion of the Hajj, the Nigerian government reported that 33 nationals had died mostly "as a result of hypertension, diabetes and heart attack", not because of any epidemic illnesses. They deny accusations made that some Nigerian pilgrims died in an accident on a road to Mina. Egypt's official news agency has reported that by December 30 (10 Thull-Hijjah), 22 Egyptian pilgrims had died. Four elderly Filipino pilgrims in their 50s died during the pilgrimage of illnesses or other 'natural causes', and were buried in Mecca. The Pakistani Hajj Medical Commission has announced that approximately 130 Pakistani pilgrims died during the Hajj season in Saudi Arabia, "mostly aged and victims of pneumonia and heart patients", and that 66 pilgrims were admitted to Saudi hospitals for similar ailments.
- In early December 2006, a coach carrying pilgrims from holy sites in Medina to Mecca crashed 55 miles north of the port of Rabegh near Jeddah, killing 3 Britons and injuring 34 others, including two children.
- In November 2011, thirteen Afghans died and a dozen others were wounded as a result of illness and traffic accidents.
Critics say that the Saudi government should have done more to prevent such tragedies. The Saudi government insists that any such mass gatherings are inherently dangerous and difficult to handle, and that they have taken a number of steps to prevent the problems.
One of the biggest steps, which is also controversial, is a new system of registrations, passports, and travel visas to control the flow of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Mecca, while restricting repeat visits. Pilgrims who have the means and desire to perform the Hajj several times have protested what they see as discrimination, but the Hajj Commission has stated that they see no alternative if further tragedies are to be prevented.
Following the 2004 stampede, Saudi authorities embarked on major construction work in and around the Jamarat Bridge area. Additional accessways, footbridges, and emergency exits were built, and the three cylindrical pillars were replaced with concrete walls to enable more pilgrims simultaneous access to them without the jostling and fighting for position of recent years. The government has also announced a multi-million-dollar project to expand the bridge to five levels; the project is planned for completion in time for the 1427 AH (Dec. 2006 – Jan. 2007) Hajj.
- "Pilgrims mark end of peaceful hajj: Circling of Kaaba brings to close perhaps largest-ever pilgrimage to Mecca]". BBC News. January 2, 2007.
This year’s hajj was likely the biggest ever, with authorities estimating that around 3 million people participated.
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- Hundreds killed in Hajj stampede"
- "Hajj stampede kills hundreds"
- Jamarat Bridge Accidents
- Saudis review Hajj danger points
- Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service - 10 January 2004
- Lessons from Hajj deaths at BBC News - 6 March 2001
- Pick Pocketing During Hajj
- The official Saudi Arabian Ministry of Hajj website