Over two hundred Indians die in Haj fire
Sonny Abraham in Dubai
Over two hundred Indians were feared killed in
a devastating fire that swept across an encampment for Muslim
pilgrims at Mina in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday on the eve of this year's
Saudi officials on Wednesday night said the death toll in
the devastating fire has risen to 343. More than 1,300 others
were injured in the blaze, which gutted more than 70,000 tents set up
for the pilgrims.
''It is a big tragedy. The number of Indians killed alone would
run into three figures," Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Mohammed
Hamid Ansari told United News of India in a telephone interview from Mecca.
Ansari said the estimate of the number of Indian victims was
based on detailed inquiries made by Indian officials at Mina.
Control rooms functioning round-the-clock, have been set up by
the Indian embassy at Jeddah, Mina and Riyadh to provide
information about the Indian pilgrims.
These control rooms may be contacted at the following telephone
Control room, Jeddah: 00-966-2-652-0104
Control room, Mina: 00-966-2-557-2710
Control room, Riyadh: 00-966-1-488-4189
Information about the pilgrims can also be obtained at the following
telephone numbers in India:
Central Haj Committee, Bombay: 022-261 2989/21 8862/267 0183/267 8398
Delhi Haj Committee, New Delhi: 011-323 4041/323 0507
Haj Cell, ministry of external affairs: 011-301 3205
Airport police, Bombay: 022-6117276
Deputy commissioner of police (emigration), Bombay: 022-8343439
Ambasador Ansari said one of the Indian camps was among those worst
affected by the fire, close to where it started. Other Indian camps
were also affected by the flames.
"It just did not give a chance to people to escape", he said,
adding that it would take quite some time for an accurate figure to
"Most of the bodies are charred," he said, pointing out
identification of the victims was difficult at this stage.
The task would be more difficult because the rest of
the 90,000 Indian pilgrims
are on the move for the next day or two.
Apart from the fact that the bodies of
the victims had been charred beyond recognition, the task of
identifying them was made more difficult by the fact that the
plastic identification bands worn by them on their wrists had been
burnt in the fire.
"Even getting a head count of those missing is difficult in the
circumstances. We will have to collate information from a variety of
sources", he said.
Indian officials had visited hospitals and morgues in the
area as part of the efforts to gather some information
about the victims. "We will continue that exercise," he said.
Official sources quoted the Indian mission in Jeddah as saying
that it would take at least three days to establish the identity of
The ambassador said he was present in Mina when the fire
broke out. "Our embassy's control centre was one of the tents
completely destroyed in the fire," he said.
Ambassador Ansari said at least 30 of the injured
were identified as Indians. "But that number is by no means
exhaustive", he pointed out.
Afzal Amanullah, the Indian consul general in Jeddah, said
an Indian medical team, comprising 100 doctors, 100
paramedical personnel and 400 volunteers, is helping in the relief
efforts, including the supply of medicines and food.
Most of the Indians who died are said to be from Western Uttar Pradesh,
Maharashtra and Bihar, M Afzal, former member of the Haj
committee claimed in Delhi.
Quoting pilgrims and members of the Haj delegation, he
said scores of bodies were seen scattered outside the Indian camps,
which were gutted in the blaze. Most of the bodies were charred
beyond recognition, he said.
The worst affected, Afzal disclosed, was camp 59, which houses
pilgrims from Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and other parts of Western
Uttar Pradesh. This camp was reduced to ashes in the fire.
Camps 64 and 67 were also badly damaged, but
most of the pilgrims escaped the flames.
Some of the Indians are believed to have died in the
stampede, as pilgrims tried to run to safety.
One pilgrim from Bangalore told Associated Press by cellular
telephone: "We were preparing for the afternoon namaz
when we saw a small fire in a tent about one kilometre away. The
harsh sun and gusty desert winds soon fanned the flames and it
spread. Men panicked and ran in every direction."
"But very soon many fire trucks and helicopters arrived to
fight the blaze,'' the witness, who gave his name only as
Egypt's Middle East News Agency said that witnesses reported
hearing explosions of gas cylinders, which are used by the pilgrims
for cooking, and suggested this could have been the cause of the
Television pictures from Mina, eleven kilometres from Mecca, showed
fleets of fire engines engaged in fire fighting operations, aided by helicopters.
Hundreds of pilgrims were seen rushing to safety
from the burning tents.
According to the Jeddah-based Arab News, the fire started from
the tents of local pilgrims and quickly spread to Iranian tents
because of the strong winds. From there it spread to tents housing
pilgrims from South Asia and Africa, the newspaper said.
Minister of State for Home Mohammad Maqbool Dar was one of those who
escaped the fire. He was at Mina along with other members of the
Indian goodwill delegation when the fire
swept the camps. The minister and the others ran to safety and
were later escorted to the hotel by Saudi officials.
External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral has directed
a three-member team -- K Ragunath, secretary (east) in the
external affairs ministry, R Dayakar, joint secretary
(Gulf and Haj ) and Azhar Khan, officer on special duty at the
ministry -- to rush to Saudi Arabia immediately to ensure that prompt
assistance is rendered to the pilgrims.
Four Air-India 747s are on standby in Bombay to
bring back the injured and the bodies of the dead,
sources in New Delhi said.
The sources said the planes would bring back pilgrims who
wished to return to India immediately.
However, the bodies would be brought only after the identity of
the dead had been established.
''Even if the identity of the dead is established, we will have to
find out from the next of kin of the deceased if the body is to be
buried there or should be flown to India'', the sources said.
The fire started around 1145 hours local time (1415 IST).
Fanned by heavy winds, the fire spread quickly, and was brought under
control after five hours by firefighters backed by emergency
helicopters. Eyewitnesses said the fire spread quickly from one
tent to another. All roads to Mina
were closed to help in the fire-fighting efforts.
Encampments for the Haj are set up by nationality. Workers later swept away
the charred remains of hundreds of air
conditioners, mattresses and burned pages of the Koran, Islam's
Witnesses said they saw hundreds of bodies. Reporters for a
local Saudi newspaper said most of the dead were
trampled in the panic caused by the fire.
Hundreds of thousands of people were left stranded by the fire on the arid
plains of Mina outside Mecca, the witnesses said.
Earlier, security forces had thrown up a cordon around Mina,
closing off the city to new arrivals to prevent further overcrowding.
The first official word on the casualties came almost ten hours after
the fire erupted.
The two million pilgrims performing the Haj this year include
about one million Muslims from abroad, who reached the kingdom by air,
land and sea. The rest of the pilgrims are from different parts of
Many of the pilgrims had moved from Mecca to Mina on Tuesday, where they
spent the night before proceeding to Mount Arafat early on Wednesday morning.
The standing on Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed delivered his
last sermon in the 7th century, is the climax of the Haj.
All able-bodied Muslims who can afford it must perform the
pilgrimage once in their lifetime.
The Haj has been overshadowed by tragedy in recent years.
Two years ago, a fire started by a gas stove in Mina destroyed
scores of tents, but no casualties were reported.
In 1994 hundreds of pilgrims, most of them Indonesian, were
killed in a stampede as worshippers surged toward a cavern for the
symbolic ritual of 'stoning the devil.'
In 1987, 402 people, mostly Iranian pilgrims, were killed and
649 injured in Mecca when Saudi security forces clashed with
Iranians staging anti-US demonstrations.
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