Twelve people lost their lives and over a dozen others were injured in a stampede at the famous Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu and Kashmir in the early hours during a heavy rush of devotees on New Year.
This is the first such tragedy at the shrine, located atop the Trikuta hills -- about 50 km from Jammu -- that attracts lakhs of people every year.
The incident occurred between 2.30 am and 2.45 am on Saturday near a relatively narrow passage at gate number 3 outside the sanctum sanctorum of the hilltop shrine where devotees usually arrive round the clock after trekking from the Katra base camp, a distance of nearly 13 km.
A high-level inquiry was ordered into the stampede by Lieutenant Governor (L-G) Manoj Sinha to be headed by Principal Secretary (Home) Shaleen Kabra with Divisional Commissioner Jammu Rajiv Langar and Additional Director General of Police Mukesh Singh as its members.
Condolences poured in from all quarters and Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Sinha and Union minister Jitendra Singh to take stock of the situation.
According to eyewitness accounts, the number of devotees was allegedly beyond the permitted level with flagrant violation of COVID-19 norms, and some of the survivors accused the Jammu and Kashmir administration of 'mismanagement'.
The Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, however, denied the charges saying all necessary arrangements were made in view of the expected rush.
Most of the deaths have taken place due to suffocation, police said, adding among the deceased seven are from Uttar Pradesh, three from Delhi and one each from Haryana and J-K.
Director General of Police Dilbag Singh, who accompanied the Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, Jitendra Singh, during the visit to the shrine after the stampede, told reporters that the incident took place due to confusion or 'probably somebody at the site acted funny which could have led to some altercation'.
"All these things are being looked into. That area is a little narrow and people ran helter-skelter without knowing the reason. Most of the deaths have taken place due to suffocation after being run over by each other and most of the injuries are also due to the same reason," he said.
Singh had told PTI that preliminary information from the scene suggests there was a minor altercation among some boys, and within seconds, there was a stampede.
"Police and officials of the civil administration were quick to respond, and the order within the crowd was immediately restored, but by that time, the damage had been done," he said.
Prem Singh, from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, said there was a 'complete mess' as neither was the number of pilgrims restricted nor were COVID-19 guidelines in force.
"It was a free-for-all-like situation. Many people were without mandatory face masks," he said, claiming that police personnel on duty at the checking point surrendered to the heavy rush and were warning people about the possibility of such an accident.
"Nothing but mismanagement was the cause for this tragic accident. They were aware about the possible rush but allowed the people in unhindered," a pilgrim from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh said while waiting outside a mortuary to identify a body.
Many people were resting on the floor, instead of heading back, and it caused more rush at the bhawan, he added.
Another man, who lost his friend Arun Pratab Singh, 30, said they had come from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. The area was overcrowded, he said.
Aditya Sharma, a pilgrim, said there was a heavy rush of devotees and some people who were sleeping on the floor got crushed.
Senior officials present at the scene said 12 people died in the stampede and their bodies were taken to a hospital in the Katra base camp.
The deceased were identified as Arun Pratab Singh, 30, Dharam Veer Singh, 35, Vineet Kumar, 38, Shewata Singh, 35, Mohinder Gour, 26, Narinder Kashap, 40, and Monu Sharma, 32, of Uttar Pradesh; Vinay Kumar, 24, Sonu Panday, 24, and Akash Kumar, 29, of Delhi; Mamta, 38, of Haryana and Desraj Kumar, 26, of Rajouri district of Jammu and Kashmir, the officials said.
Fifteen injured were undergoing treatment at the Mata Vaishno Devi Narayana Superspeciality Hospital, and the condition of two of them was stated to be critical. Some were discharged after first-aid, they added.
An hour after the incident, pilgrims were again allowed at the site, the officials said, adding the yatra was not disrupted.
Prime Minister Modi said that the central government is in constant touch with the J-K administration to assist the affected people.
Speaking at a programme to release funds under the PM-KISAN scheme, Modi said he was 'extremely saddened by the loss of lives due to a stampede at Mata Vaishno Devi Bhawan. Condolences to the bereaved families. May the injured recover soon'.
The J-K administration has announced a relief of Rs 10 lakh to the deceased and Rs 2 lakh to the injured which will be paid by the Shrine board.
In a series of tweets, the office of the Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor expressed pain at the loss of lives and gave details of whom Sinha had briefed after the stampede which included the Prime Minister and Home Minister Amit Shah.
The PMO tweeted that 'an ex gratia of Rs 2 lakh each from PMNRF would be given to the next of kin of those who lost their lives due to the stampede at Mata Vaishno Devi Bhawan. The injured would be given Rs 50,000: PM @narendramodi'.
Union Minister Jitendra Singh said innovative measures are required to deal with the new trend of youngsters eager to visit Mata Vaishno Devi shrine on the first day of the new year.
The minister also visited the injured devotees undergoing treatment at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Narayana Superspeciality Hospital at Kakriyal.
'Traditionally, the pilgrims used to come on the festival days like Navratras, Dussehra and Deepavali. This is a new trend and we have to take measures accordingly (of youngsters visiting on New Year),' he said, adding 'when we will sit and talk, we will talk about innovation and technology to find some solution to the issue'.
President Ram Nath Kovind said he was very distressed to know about the stampede and offered condolences to the bereaved families.
'I wish speedy recovery to those injured,' he said.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah said he was deeply pained by the tragic accident.
'Deeply pained by the tragic accident at Mata Vaishno Devi temple. In this regard, I have spoken to Lieutenant Governor of J&K Shri Manoj Sinha. The administration is working continuously to provide treatment to the injured. I express my condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in this accident,' Shah tweeted in Hindi.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said, 'The stampede at Mata Vaishno Devi temple is tragic. I extend my condolences to the families of the deceased.'
Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader and former legislator Devender Singh Rana, who interacted with the pilgrims in Jammu to take stock of the situation, said the incident was the first of its kind to take place at the shrine.
"It is a tragic incident and a sad moment for all of us. The whole administration is working to ensure the bodies are returned to their families and those injured are given adequate treatment," he said.
"This is no time for allegations or counter-allegations. It is a tragedy that has happened and nobody should play politics over it," he added.
Political parties in Kashmir, including the National Conference and the People's Conference, expressed grief over the incident.
The People's Democratic Party said such 'mismanagement' has been unheard of in recent times.
'Our heartfelt condolences go out to the families who lost their loved ones and pray for speedy recovery of the injured,' it said in a tweet.
Officials at the spot said the incident was triggered by a heavy rush of devotees who came to pay their obeisance to mark the beginning of the New Year.
While most of the devotees undertake the arduous trek, some reach there by helicopter service.