MAKKAH: A massive construction crane crashed into Makkah's Grand Mosque in stormy weather Friday, killing at least 107 people and injuring 238, Saudi authorities said, less than a fortnight before the Haj pilgrimage starts.
According to the Saudi civil defence authority around 238 people were injured in the incident and they are currently being treated in the nearby hospitals.
“All those who were wounded and the dead have been taken to hospital. There are no casualties left at the location,” he added. Strong wind and rains had uprooted trees and affected cranes in the area, he said.
A statement by a spokesman for the administration of the mosques in Makkah and Madina said the crane smashed into the part of the Grand Mosque where worshippers circumambulate the Kaaba and where pilgrims walk between Mount Safa and Marwa.
The civil defence authority said on Twitter that emergency teams were sent to the scene after a “crane fell at the Grand Mosque.” That came about an hour after it tweeted that Makkah was “witnessing medium to heavy rains,” with pictures circulating on social media showing lightning.
Meanwhile, Pakistani embassy officials say they were trying to find out if any Pakistani pilgrim died or suffered injuries in the accident.
|Saudi emergency teams stand next to a construction crane after it crashed into the Grand Mosque. —AFP|
Few details were immediately available but pictures circulating on social media showed bloodied bodies strewn across part of the mosque where the crane was seen having crashed into the ceiling.
The incident occurred as hundreds of thousands of Muslims gather from all over the world for the annual Haj pilgrimage set to begin later this month.
The civil defence authority announced the collapse and a series of rising casualty numbers on its official Twitter account. It said 238 people were wounded in the accident.
The nationalities of those killed have not been ascertained as of now.
Videos and photos posted by social media users showed a grisly scene, with police and onlookers attending to multiple bloodied bodies on the polished mosque floors.
Pan-satellite Al-Jazeera Television broadcast footage from inside the mosque compound said to be from the aftermath of the accident, showing the floor strewn with rubble and what appear to be pools of blood.
Another video, on a Twitter posting, captured the apparent moment of the crane's collapse during a heavy rainstorm, with a loud boom, screams and confusion.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has expressed deep condolences on the sad demise of pilgrims due to the incident. He prayed for eternal peace of the departed souls and commiserated with the bereaved families and the government of Saudia Arabia.
Nawaz Sharif has directed Pakistan's ambassador in Saudia Arabia to provide every possible help to the injured and to personally visit patients in hospitals on behalf of the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Pleas to donate blood
The governor of Makkah region, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, has ordered an investigation into the incident and was heading to the mosque, the official @makkahregion account on Twitter said.
Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Makkah-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, compared the carnage to that caused by a bomb.
He suggested 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 Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Online activists created a hashtag on Twitter urging Makkah residents to donate blood at hospitals in the area.
No details were immediately available on the nationalities of the victims.
Iran's official IRNA news agency, quoting the head of the Haj Organisation, said 15 Iranian pilgrims were among those injured.
Most of them were treated as outpatients, Saeid Ohadi said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose country is home to tens of millions of Muslims, took to Twitter to express his sorrow over the incident.
“My thoughts & prayers are with the families of those who lost their lives in the crane crash in Makkah. I wish the injured a quick recovery,” he said on his @narendramodi account.
Britain's David Cameron also used the micro-blogging site to say: “My thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost loved ones at #mecca today”.
A massive project is under way to expand the area of the mosque by 400,000 square metres, allowing it to accommodate up to 2.2 million people at once.
The pilgrimage, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, has been prone to disasters in the past, mainly from stampedes as pilgrims rushed to complete rituals and return home. Hundreds of pilgrims died in such a stampede in 2006.
Though because of multi-billion dollar investments, the haj has become nearly incident-free in recent years.
Saudi authorities have lavished vast sums to expand the main Haj sites and improve Makkah's transportation system, in an effort to prevent more disasters.
Security services often ring Islam's sacred city with checkpoints and other measures to prevent people arriving for the pilgrimage without authorisation.
Those procedures, aimed at reducing crowd pressure which can lead to stampedes, fires and other hazards, have been intensified in recent years as security threats grow throughout the Middle East.
SPA said that almost 800,000 pilgrims had arrived by Friday for the haj, which all able-bodied Muslims are expected to perform if they have the means to do so.
Last year, just over two million people took part.
With input by Irfan Haider from Islamabad.