More Than 200 Pilgrims Killed by Fire Near Mecca

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

A fire driven by high winds tore through a sprawling, overcrowded tent city near Mecca on Tuesday, trapping and killing pilgrims gathered for a sacred Islamic ritual. The official death toll was 217, but witnesses said at least 300 died.

Saudi Arabia said more than 1,290 pilgrims were injured in the fire, which witnesses blamed on exploding canisters of cooking gas.

M.H. Ansari, India's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said 100 Indians were killed in the fire. Most of the other victims were believed to be from Pakistan and Bangladesh, many of them elderly, witnesses said. Some were trampled to death as pilgrims fled the fire on the plains of Mina, about seven miles east of Mecca.

A group of 34 pilgrims from Southern California, most of them from Orange County, was in the encampment when the fire broke out within two miles of their site, according to one member of the group. He said no one from the group was killed or seriously injured.

"We saw the fire coming like air, and we just ran and ran and ran," said Masum Ahmed, 30, of North Hollywood, speaking by telephone from a hotel in Mecca. "God helped us to get out from there."

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were stranded after the fire destroyed an estimated 70,000 tents, which the pilgrims use for shelter in the final days of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Civil defense forces from Mecca and nearby Jidda and Taif rushed to the scene, handing out tents and supplies.

An estimated 2 million pilgrims had gathered on the plains for the annual hajj. Less than an hour before the fire began, security forces had thrown up a cordon around the entire area, closing it to new arrivals to stop further overcrowding, witnesses said.

The fire erupted shortly before noon as the pilgrims gathered on the plains were beginning to move to Mt. Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final sermon in the 7th century.

Fanned by winds of nearly 40 mph, the blaze swept across the plains and quickly spread chaos through the camp, crammed with row after row of white tents.

Three hundred fire engines helped battle the blaze, and helicopters dropped water on the site, witnesses said. The fire was brought under control after about three hours.

By Tuesday afternoon, as temperatures soared to 104 degrees, the desert area was a scene of devastation. Pilgrims wandered amid the smoldering remains of tents. Many appeared lost as they searched for relatives or friends, witnesses said.

Witnesses said they had seen hundreds of bodies. Saudi newspaper reporters who visited the site said at least 300 people had died.

Ahmed, the North Hollywood resident, was with his mother, Camrun Nahar, also of North Hollywood, when the fire broke out.

"When we noticed the smoke from the fire, it was small," he said. "We thought the fire brigade would take care of it, no problem."

But within about half an hour, the fire grew to alarming proportions, he said.

"There was heavy smoke, and we could see the fire,' Ahmed said. "People started to run in all directions, millions of people. They were breaking down the fences, not caring about each other. Some were running over other people."

The members of his group all made it to a main road about two miles from their tents, Ahmed said. Because of the intense heat of the day, he added, people were suffering from not having enough water, and government water trucks on the road were mobbed.

"The officials tried to get people to make a line, but they would not," Ahmed said. "People were fighting with each other to get water."

Members of the group later learned that all their rented tents were destroyed in the fire. Ahmed said his mother, a diabetic, lost her insulin and other medical supplies she had left behind in a tent. He was trying to find replacement insulin for her at pharmacies in Mecca.

Ahmed said the rest of the group planned to continue the pilgrimage at Arafat. There, they hoped to again be housed in tents for the religious ceremonies that will climax the pilgrimage today. "People are scared," Ahmed said. "But we have to trust in God to help us."

The tour was arranged by Mubarik Awan of Anaheim, a car dealer who has made the trip more than 17 times, Awan's wife, Shaheen, said from Anaheim.

She made dozens of frantic telephone calls to Mecca on Tuesday before finding out that her husband and his group had escaped serious injury, she said.

Communications were difficult as telephone lines into the country rang busy. And there were no telephones in the tent areas, she said, and no way to reach her husband directly.

"They were at the hotel [Monday] night, and were supposed to leave for early morning prayers, then stay overnight in the tents," she said. "They got there at maybe 9 or 10 a.m., and the fire started about 11:30.

"As far as I know, everything is OK."

Shabbir Mansuri, founding director of the Council on Islamic Education in Fountain Valley, speculated that the dead would be mostly from the same part of the world, since the tent cities are arranged by region.

Every Muslim who can afford it is expected to make the pilgrimage at least once in his or her lifetime. Every year, the hajj brings together one of the largest groups of people in a single place anywhere in the world.

Saudi Arabia, custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines, has spent $18.6 billion in the last decade on expanding sites in Mecca and surrounding areas. Cameras have been installed on main roads, bridges and tunnels to monitor pilgrims' movements and ensure that the hajj proceeds peacefully.

The hajj has been the scene of several recent tragedies.

In 1994, 270 pilgrims, most of them Indonesian, were killed as worshipers surged toward a cavern. In 1990, 1,426 people died in a stampede through a tunnel.

In 1987, 402 people, mostly Iranian pilgrims, were killed and 649 wounded in Mecca when Saudi security forces clashed with Iranians staging anti-U.S. demonstrations.

Times staff writers David Colker and Scott Martelle in Orange County contributed to this report.

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