Volume 2, Number 2
Muharram, 1418/May, 1997

12,000 Die in Disastrous Hajj Fire

Mecca - April 18th.

Unnamed sources say that the fire that rampaged uncontrolled through the tent city at Mina, took approximately 12,000 lives. On the condition of anonymity, these sources say that more than 75,000 tents were burned up in the deadly blaze. "The government is terrified that the real death count will get out. They are trying to control all news getting out. However, our sources are in the fire, police and ambulance services that pulled the living out of the mess. They made their own count."

Two and a half to three million Muslims -- clad in the white garbof ihram--are said to have attended this year's pilgrimage.

Meanwhile, officials continued to play down the numbers and to push blame on the "careless pilgrims". Saudi state-run radio gave the final death toll as something over 2,000. "Investigations indicate that the fire was an accident," said one Saudi ambassador "Unfortunately, we see that many of the pilgrims are ignorant and peasants, who don't know the dangers of using gas stoves in the tents. We have tried to educate them, but many can't even read."

Dark smoke envelops Mina as the fire spreads rapidly through the tents. Fires and explosions sprang up suddenly in places untouched by flames, as burning embers carried the fire forward through 75,000 tents, on the high winds blowing that day.

However, stories from thousands of eyewitnesses, indicate that whatever the cause, the inefficiency and incompetence of fire and rescue workers and their delayed reaction to the reports of the fire were the main reason for the high death toll. "We knew nothing about the fire, which started about 10 am, until we saw a dark cloud overhead. We thought perhaps it was a sandstorm or it was going to rain. No sirens were sounded and until we heard the shouting and screaming of those fleeing the fire, we had no knowledge of anything unusual. The fire took our tent at around noon, just minutes after we escaped!"

Diplomats and witnesses said the blaze was caused by gas cylinder explosions. The greatest complaint was that no warning of the fire was given and that fire and ambulance teams arrived much too late to stop the fire.

In Mina, the air was filled with smoke, and the ground was littered with remains of tents, burned-out buses and cars, and destroyed luggage. Trucks carted off blackened debris, while workers -- assisted by the army -- frantically erected new tents in expectation of the pilgrims returning from Arafat the next day.

One diplomat said, "Hospital staff are not authorized to speak and the Hajj authorities are not sharing information with the embassies or press."

Perhaps half of the victims were believed to have come from India and Pakistan. Saudi newspapers said the fire had also engulfed Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Sudanese, Yemeni and Moroccan tents.

While the search of the charred debris continued, swarms of white-robed pilgrims by midday Wednesday had reached Mount Arafat, pinnacle of an elaborate set of hajj rituals.

Calls of "Labbayk Allahuma labayk! At thy service O' Lord, at thy service," echoed through across the valley as the pilgrims moved in a massive white wave onto the massive plain, where Prophet Muhammad (s) delivered his Farewell Sermon shortly before his passing in 632 CE.

It is most important that every pilgrim arrive at Arafat by noon to make the Dhuhr prayer. It is the climax of the hajj, or pilgrimage, which every Muslim who can afford must perform at least once in a lifetime.

Pilgrims flee as the fire approaches their tents in Mina. Eyewitnesses say no sirens were sounded and fire and rescue teams were ineffective for more than two hours after the fire began.

However, this year, due to the fire, some pilgrims had to miss accomplishment of this fifth pillar of Islam. "We will come next year for hajj, insha-Allah. This year we lost everything," said one pilgrim.

Others continued on, their desire to complete the rite undiminished by the terrible disaster that had befallen them. One such pilgrim said, "I grieve for the loss of my father, he was caught and could not escape. But I am glad in the knowledge he died as a shaheed, and he is in Paradise now, alhamdulillah!" Such fervent faith was seen in many of the pilgrims, who had lost loved ones, but undeterred, moved on to Arafat to attend the standing of the main day of Hajj, wuquf'i Arafat. Deeply saddened, they spent their day at Arafat, imploring Allah's mercy on their family members who were martyred in the fire.

Thursday, Muslims around the world celebrated Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) at the end of hajj. However, the normal rejoicing was severely tempered by the knowledge that many hajjis perished in the fire.

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