A sudden rush of devotees at the Vaishno Devi shrine in Katra to mark the beginning of the New Year triggered the stampede that resulted in the death of 12 people, some of the survivors said, blaming 'mismanagement' for the tragedy.
The Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, however, denied the charge, saying all necessary arrangements were made in view of the expected rush, while Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police (DGP) Dilbag Singh blamed a minor altercation for the 'unfortunate' incident.
"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 dead body.
The man, who did not wish to be named, said this situation could have been avoided if the authorities concerned had managed the pilgrimage better.
"A similar situation had happened minutes earlier but luckily none was hurt and the situation was controlled. We were part of a group of 10 devotees -- all neighbours. A heavy rush triggered the stampede as people were going in and out, and every one was in a hurry," he said.
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 bhawan was overcrowded, he added.
"I had visited the shrine about 10 years ago but was surprised by the heavy rush this time. After the tragedy, we found ourselves helpless and got no help till 6 am," he alleged.
Rani Devi of Bihar's Muzaffarpur said they were fortunate to have escaped death.
"I saw many people dead on the floor and was heartbroken," she said, blaming it on the 'uncontrolled rush' of pilgrims at the bhawan.
Aditya Sharma, another devotee, said some people who were sleeping on the floor got crushed in the stampede.
Following the incident, many pilgrims were seen leaving Katra, the base camp for the shrine, without paying obeisance.
"We are from Pathankot. We returned from the bhawan without 'darshan' due to the stampede," said Rekha, who was accompanied by five other family members, including three children.
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 X-ray checking point surrendered to the heavy rush and were warning people about the possibility of such an accident.
However, many people were seen waiting in long queues to visit the shrine as the pilgrimage continued unaffected.
"We have been waiting for five hours but nothing is moving," said Navdeep of Karnal in Haryana.
Chief executive officer of the shrine board Ramesh Kumar, who was among the first to reach the scene to take stock of the situation and visit the injured at the Narayana hospital, could not be contacted for comment.
Another official of the board, who wished not to be named, said adequate arrangements, including security, were in place due to the expected rush of pilgrims.
The DGP said preliminary information from the scene suggests there was an altercation among some young boys, and within seconds, there was a stampede situation.
"Police and officials from 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 told PTI.
Senior BJP leader and former legislator Devender Singh Rana, who interacted with the pilgrims here 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 of the deceased are returned to their families and those injured are given adequate treatment," he said.
Rana said Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also taken note of the incident and the Lieutenant Governor-led administration is doing its best.
"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.
At least 12 people died and over a dozen were injured in the stampede that occurred around 2.30 am near gate number three outside the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine atop the Trikuta hills, about 50 km from Jammu.