Authorities in Saudi Arabia say at least 345 Muslim pilgrims have been trampled to death in a stampede during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. More than 250 more people were injured in the crush, which officials blame in part on dropped luggage.
The stampede happened during the final phase of the Hajj, the symbolic stoning of the devil on the Jamarat Bridge. That is the same place where previous stampedes have claimed hundreds of lives during the annual Muslim pilgrimage.
Saudi newspaper editor Khaled Batarfi was not far from the bridge when it happened.
"The whole area [was] stopped from all kind of movements, and we were wondering why, because when they stopped the flow from one end, there were people coming from the other end, and they were pushing us ahead," he said. "And then, one of the policemen came and told us there were accidents on the bridge and people were dead, and that is why they cannot let us go … by thousands. They were regulating the flow."
He says there was no panic in the crowd where he was, because most of the other pilgrims were unaware of what had happened until much later.
Saudi officials and witnesses say a big part of the problem was that some pilgrims brought their luggage with them and other pilgrims who tripped over the bags were crushed as the crowd pushed in behind them.
"They were just moving from one place to another with their luggage, sometimes a whole tent over their head. And that is a real problem, because, when it is too crowded, and this luggage fell on the ground, people stumble over them," Mr. Batarfi added. "And if you stumble over people, panic started, because their family would start shouting and pushing around, and all kind of problems start from that point."
Mecca area medical services chief Dr. Yasser Al-Hamdi told Saudi state television authorities had to bring in extra ambulances to handle the large number of wounded, although they had prepared for a possible disaster.
"What was happening, you know, was… we were preparing for such an incident from before," he said. "So, we had around 20 medical teams there before this happened, you know."
Saudi authorities have made some major changes to the Hajj process in recent years, in an effort to prevent disasters like the 1990 stampede that killed more that 1,400 pilgrims.
Dr. Hamdi and other Saudi officials said, despite the security improvements, some Muslim countries do not properly educate their citizens about how to perform the pilgrimage safely.
"This problem is happening regularly, you know," he added. "So, what we need is to raise the level of education of the pilgrims, before they come to Saudi Arabia, that they shouldn't carry the luggage, and they shouldn't push, and what we are seeing today. So, what we need is more education for the pilgrimage, in their language."
This is the fifth deadly stampede during the pilgrimage in the past eight years and the second disaster to strike this year's Hajj. Last week, 76 people were killed when a building collapsed in the center of Mecca. It was being used as a hotel to house pilgrims.
The Hajj pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam. All Muslims who are financially and physically able to make the journey are required to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.