Hajj to go ahead after Mecca crane collapse kills 107

14.09.2015

Saudi authorities said Saturday that Islam's annual hajj pilgrimage will go ahead despite a crane collapse that killed 107 people at Mecca's Grand Mosque, where crowds returned to pray a day after the tragedy.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had already arrived in Mecca for the hajj, a must for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it, when the massive red and white crane collapsed during rain and high winds on Friday. Parts of the Grand Mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, remained sealed off Saturday around the toppled crane, which also injured around 200 people when it fell into a courtyard. But there was little mourning among pilgrims, who snapped pictures of the wreckage and continued with their prayers and rituals. "I wish I had died in the accident, as it happened at a holy hour and in a holy place," Egyptian pilgrim Mohammed Ibrahim told AFP.

The accident occurred only about an hour before evening mahgrib prayers on the Muslim weekly day of prayer. Om Salma, a Moroccan pilgrim, said "our phones have not stopped ringing since yesterday with relatives calling to check on us." Indonesians and Indians were among those killed when the crane collapsed, while the injured included Malaysians, Egyptians and Iranians.

A Saudi official said the hajj, expected to start on 21 September, would proceed despite the tragedy. "It definitely will not affect the hajj this season, and the affected part will probably be fixed in a few days," said the official, who declined to be named. An investigative committee has "immediately and urgently" begun searching for the cause of the collapse, the official Saudi Press Agency said. The contractor has been directed to ensure the safety of all other cranes at the site, it added. The cranes tower over the sprawling mosque expansion taking place beneath the Mecca Royal Clock Tower, the world's third-tallest building, at 601 metres (1,972 feet).

For years, work has been underway on a 400,000 square metre (4.3 million square feet) expansion of the Grand Mosque to allow it to accommodate up to 2.2 million people at once. Abdel Aziz Naqoor, who said he works at the mosque, told AFP he saw the massive construction crane fall during the storm. "If it weren't for Al-Tawaf bridge the injuries and deaths would have been worse," he said, referring to a covered walkway which broke the crane's fall and surrounds the holy Kaaba. The Kaaba is a massive cube-shaped structure at the centre of the mosque towards which Muslims worldwide pray.

A witness said the winds were so strong that they shook his car and tossed billboards around. Pictures of the incident on Twitter showed bloodied bodies strewn across the courtyard, where part of the crane came to rest atop an ornate, arched and colonnaded section of the complex. A video on YouTube showed people screaming and rushing around following a loud crash. Saudis and foreigners lined up in the street to give blood in response to the tragedy.

Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, suggested that authorities were negligent by having a series of cranes overlooking the mosque. "They do not care about the heritage, and they do not care about health and safety," he told AFP. Alawi is an outspoken critic of redevelopment at the holy sites, which he says is wiping away tangible links to the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. But an engineer for the Saudi Binladin Group, the developer, told AFP the crane was installed in "an extremely professional way" and there was no technical problem. "It was an act of God", he said.

Saudi Binladin Group belongs to the family of the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, former head of Mecca's religious police, told AFP the accident is a "test" from God. "We need to accept what happened," he said, calling at the same time for a thorough investigation.

Condolences came in from around the world, including from Arab leaders, as well as from Britain, Canada, India and Nigeria. This was not the first tragedy to strike Mecca pilgrims, though the hajj has been nearly incident-free in recent years. In 2006, several hundred died in a stampede during the Stoning of the Devil ritual in nearby Mina, following a similar incident two years earlier.    (AFP)

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