Fires driven by high winds tore through a sprawling, overcrowded tent city 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.
“We are facing a chaotic situation here,” M.H. Ansari, the Indian ambassador, was quoted as saying by Press Trust of India.
He said 100 Indians were killed in the fire. Most of the other victims were believed to be Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, many of them elderly, witnesses told The Associated Press. Some were trampled to death as pilgrims fled the fire.
“Men panicked and ran in every direction,” said an Indian pilgrim who spoke to the AP by telephone and identified himself only as Irfan.
Three hundred fire engines helped battle the blaze, and helicopters dropped loads of water, witnesses said. The fire was brought under control in about three hours.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were stranded after the fire destroyed an estimated 70,000 tents, which they use for shelter in the final days of the Hajj.
Prince Majid bin Abdul Aziz, the royal family’s representative in Mecca, ordered that new tents be provided to all pilgrims affected by the fire, Saudi television reported.
The fire erupted shortly before noon as Muslims gathered for the hajj, or pilgrimage, and were beginning to move to Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon in the seventh century.
The fire was started by exploding gas cylinders, which pilgrims use for cooking in the tents, they said.
Fanned by winds of nearly 40 mph, it swept across the plain and quickly spread chaos through the camp, crammed with row after row of white tents.
Witnesses said they had seen hundreds of bodies. Saudi newspaper reporters who visited the site said at least 300 had died, most of them trampled underfoot in the pandemonium.
Hours later, a cloud of smoke still hung over the encampment.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.