Category: Pirate Hajj


September 14, 2015

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Jumaa Ibrahim and his wife Hasnaa Karam, a Syrian couple in their early 60s, arrived in Mecca on Friday, and headed straight to Islam’s holiest site, the cube-shaped Kaaba.

It had begun to rain in the ancient desert city. Karam, who had waited a lifetime to make the pilgrimage to stand before the Kaaba, stood with her palms facing toward the sky in prayer. Ibrahim stood a few feet to her side, quietly reading verses from the Quran.

Suddenly, a loud boom echoed. Karam found herself surrounded by carnage — body parts were scattered everywhere amid pools of blood on the white marble floor of the mosque. The kingdom’s Civil Defense says unusually strong winds tipped over one of the massive cranes around the Grand Mosque that houses the Kaaba. The crane crashed through part of the mosque’s roof and upper floors, sending concrete slabs crashing down.

“I saw a head, legs, blood, dead people,” Karam said Sunday, interviewed at her husband’s bedside in Mecca’s Al-Noor Specialist Hospital. “We started saying ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar’ as the rain poured down.”

She escaped injury, but her husband was among the hundreds injured, his leg broken in two parts. The death toll reached 111 on Sunday as more of the injured died. The Health Ministry on Sunday said 394 people were treated at medical facilities after the crane collapse, and 158 of the injured remain hospitalized.

Ayman Shaaban, the owner of a hajj tour company in Egypt, was praying on the ground floor of the Grand Mosque when the crane collapsed. He says he was tossed some 20 meters (66 feet). He was immediately rushed into a large room with other injured people, the right side of his face broken, bloodied and swollen, unable to open his left eye.

Saudi media reported that a committee has been established to investigate the incident. It is unclear how the kingdom’s Civil Defense, which led rescue operations, was able to determine that winds caused the crane’s collapse. The spokesman for Civil Defense could not be immediately reached for comment.

Shaaban has questions about the cause of the accident. “Logically speaking, for a crane to fall from wind, even if there were strong winds, something doesn’t add up,” Shaaban said from his hospital bed. “If there is negligence, because of these souls lost, someone must be held accountable.”

Such concerns indicate the sensitivity of the incident for Saudi King Salman, whose title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the first mosque built by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. The king visited the Grand Mosque on Saturday and later met with some of the injured being treated at the government-run Al-Noor hospital.

The Al Saud royal family’s legitimacy is rooted in part in its claim to be the protectors of Islam’s two most sacred sites that are at the center of the hajj — the pilgrimage that all Muslims are required to perform at least once in their lifetime if they are able to do so.

The accident comes just over a week before this year’s hajj, which is expected to start around Sept. 21 and last four to five days. It will draw between 2 to 3 million Muslims from around the world for a series of rites in Mecca and surrounding areas that are believed to trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

Officials have not yet removed the crane. An Associated Press journalist saw the Liebherr crane on Sunday, its base tipped forward and its superstructure leaning into the mosque where it struck. The Liebherr Group, a large equipment manufacturer, makes many of its cranes at a plant in Biberach an der Riss, Germany, and has its global headquarters in Switzerland.

Liebherr spokesman Kristian Kueppers said in an email to The Associated Press that the company is doing everything in its power “to help bring the accident investigation to a speedy and logical conclusion.” The company said it had issued clear instructions on how the crane was to be installed and secured to protect it from winds. The company also expressed its deep sympathy for the families of the victims.

Over the years, the Grand Mosque has undergone several expansions to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims, but in the last decade, the kingdom launched its most ambitious overhaul ever. Historic sites significant for Islam have been demolished to make way for hotels, causing an outcry among some Muslims. Saudi officials say the overhaul is needed as the number of pilgrims during hajj is projected to reach 7 million by 2040.

The current $60-billion Grand Mosque expansion will almost double the area for pilgrims to pray at the Kaaba. The Grand Mosque is now surrounded by dozens of cranes, part of the massive construction effort headed by the Saudi Binladin Group. The Binladin family has been close to Saudi Arabia’s ruling family for decades and runs major building projects around the country. Al-Qaida’s late leader Osama bin Laden was a renegade son disowned by the family in the 1990s.

The Binladin Group has not released any statements to the press about the crane collapse and its representatives have not been made available for comment. The company’s chairman or a top representative is likely a member of the investigating committee, according to several Saudis familiar with the process.

On Sunday, the imam of the Grand Mosque, Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al Sudais, also visited the injured. Flanked by a team of assistants, he gave patients bags that included a copy of the Quran, a vial of traditional Arab fragrance called oud, and bottles of water from the sacred underground Zamzam well in Mecca believed to have healing properties.

He told patients that that there was great reward for them in being at the Kaaba, just before the hajj. “This is God’s will,” he told each patient as he passed by their bed. “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, may God protect him, is very concerned with your well-being.”

Dr. Salem Bajuifer, medical director at Al-Noor,, said his team received around 120 patients, many of them with serious injuries requiring amputations. The injured at the hospital come from a range of countries, including Germany, Canada, Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Syria and Iran.

The Indian mission in Saudi Arabia says two of its citizens were killed. The Saudi government has not released details about the nationalities or ages of the dead since many are still being identified. Several children are believed to have died.

“It is a big trauma,” Bajuifer said when asked about the emotional toll on patients and their relatives. “Of course everybody is traumatized, not only the patients. Even we are traumatized.” Karam, whose husband has been in and out of surgery for his leg, says she’s too traumatized to think about what comes next. She fled barrel bombs and the civil war in Syria to live in Turkey, never expecting to be so close to death at Islam’s most sacred site.

“I am still feeling terrified,” she said, as she broke into tears.

Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

Advertisements

September 12, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — A towering construction crane toppled over on Friday during a violent rainstorm in the Saudi city of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, crashing into the Grand Mosque and killing at least 107 people ahead of the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage later this month.

Images posted by social media users showed a grisly scene, with police and onlookers attending to numerous bodies lying amid pools of blood on the polished mosque floors. Saudi Arabia’s civil defense authority provided a series of rising casualty numbers on its official Twitter account as ambulances whisked the wounded to area hospitals. As of early Saturday, it said those injured in the disaster numbered 238.

A photo released by the authority showed police and workers in hardhats inspecting a pile of collapsed concrete slabs inside a part of the sprawling, ornately decorated mosque. Another showed the base of the toppled red-and-white crane tilted upward at a sharp angle.

Images aired on Saudi state television showed the crane’s metal boom smashed through what appeared to be the roof of the mosque. Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Mansouri, the spokesman for the presidency of the Mecca and Medina mosque affairs, said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency that the accident happened late Friday afternoon during a severe storm carrying strong winds and heavy rain.

Authorities did not provide details on the victims’ nationalities, but it was likely that the tragedy will touch several countries. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his condolences and said the U.S. stands with Saudi Arabia and “all Muslims around the world in the aftermath of this dreadful incident at one of Islam’s holiest sites.”

The Grand Mosque and the cube-shaped Kaaba within it draw Muslims of all types from around the world throughout the year, though numbers increase significantly in the run-up to the hajj. The mosque is Islam’s holiest site to which Muslims face in daily prayers and a central site among the hajj rituals.

Performing the pilgrimage once during one’s lifetime is a duty for all able-bodied adult Muslims. This year’s pilgrimage is expected to start around Sept. 22. Al-Mansouri said the crane, which was being used in construction work at the mosque, struck a circular area around the Kaaba and a nearby walkway.

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 red-and-white crane’s collapse during a heavy rainstorm, with a loud boom, screams and confusion. The governor of the Mecca region, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, quickly called for the formation of a committee to investigate the cause of the accident. He directed all appropriate authorities to provide support for all of those injured, according to a statement from Mecca principality public affairs head Sultan al-Dosari that was carried on SPA.

Other Saudi officials could not immediately be reached or referred queries to the civil defense statements. Several cranes surround the mosque to support an ongoing expansion and other construction work that has transformed the area around the sanctuary.

Steep hills and low-rise traditional buildings that once surrounded the mosque have in recent years given way to shopping malls and luxury hotels — among them the world’s third-tallest building, a giant clock tower that is the centerpiece of the Abraj al-Bait complex.

The construction giant Saudi Binladin Group is leading the mosque expansion and also built the Abraj al-Bait project. The Binladin family has been close to the ruling Al Saud family for decades and oversees major building projects around the country. The Binladen family disowned one of its many members, late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in the 1990s.

It was not immediately clear who owned the crane that collapsed. During the week of the hajj, Muslims converge on Mecca to perform a series of rituals, including the circling of the cube-shaped Kaaba, praying and holding vigil at Mount Arafat and perform the symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles at the three pillars in Mina.

Prayers on and around the mount are a climactic emotional and spiritual moment in the hajj. The faithful believe that on that day the gates of heaven are open, prayers are answered and past sins are forgiven.

All male pilgrims, regardless of wealth or status, wear seamless terry white cloths to symbolize equality before God during the hajj. Women cover their hair and wear long loose clothing, forgoing makeup and other adornments to help them detach from worldly pleasures and outward appearances.

It was on Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, where Islam’s Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1,400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite.

While following a route that the prophet once walked, the rites are believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

The millions of pilgrims who visit the country’s holy sites each year pose a considerable security and logistical challenge for the Saudi government, and large-scale deadly accidents have occurred on a number of occasions in years past.

In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims died in a stampede at the desert plain of Mina, near Mecca. A crush of pilgrims two years earlier left 244 dead. The worst hajj-related tragedy was in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.

Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Katarina Kratovac in Cairo contributed to this report.