Islam’s hajj pilgrimage will take place despite a crane collapse that killed 107 people at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Saudi authorities said Saturday as crowds returned to pray a day after the tragedy.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had already arrived in Mecca for the annual hajj when the massive red and white crane toppled over during a Friday thunderstorm.
Parts of the Grand Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, remained sealed off on Saturday around the wreckage of the crane, which also injured around 200 people when it crashed 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, and the injured included Malaysians, Egyptians and Iranians.
“Suddenly, I heard thunder and then we heard a very loud noise. That was the sound of the crane falling,” said Mohammed, a Moroccan pilgrim.
Another visitor, Ahmed from Egypt, said he and those around him were “very scared, hysterical even”.
A Saudi official said the hajj, expected to start on September 21, would go ahead despite the tragedy.
– Enquiry has begun –
“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.
The pilgrimage is a must for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it.
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 soar skywards over a sprawling mosque expansion taking place beneath the Mecca Royal Clock Tower, the world’s third tallest building.
For years, work has been under way 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 that the casualty toll would have been higher had a covered walkway which surrounds the holy Kaaba not broken the crane’s fall.
The Kaaba is the huge cube-shaped structure at the centre of the mosque towards which Muslims worldwide pray.
“We saw people dying before our eyes”, the Arab News quoted Sheikh Abdul Raheem as saying.
Pictures of the incident on Twitter showed bloodied bodies strewn across the courtyard, where part of the crane had landed atop an ornate, arched and colonnaded section of the complex.
A video on YouTube showed people screaming and rushing around following a loud crash.
– ‘Act of God’ –
Saudis and foreigners lined up to donate blood in response to the tragedy.
Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, suggested that the authorities had been 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 Muslim holy sites, which he says is wiping away tangible links to the Prophet Mohammed.
But an engineer for the Saudi Binladin Group, the developer, told AFP the crane had been installed in “an extremely professional way” and that there had been 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 was a “test” from God.
“We need to accept what happened,” he said, at the same time calling for a thorough investigation.
Condolences came in from around the world, including from Arab leaders, as well as from Britain, Canada, India and Nigeria.
It was not the first tragedy to strike Mecca pilgrims, although the hajj has been practically incident-free in recent years.
In 2006 Hajj, several hundred people died in a stampede during the Stoning of the Devil ritual in nearby Mina, following a similar incident two years earlier.