'Suddenly debris started falling down on us'

Survivors of the collapse of a hostel in the holy city of Mecca recounted on Friday the horror of the latest tragedy to strike the hajj as the death toll rose to 76.

“I heard one big noise,” said Tayeb Mizasha (70), a Frenchman of Algerian origin, as he lay in bed in Mecca’s King Faisal hospital with broken ribs and a bruised face. “At first, I thought it was an earthquake.”

He said he was staying at the Luluat Al-Kheir (Pearl of Grace) hostel with 16 French Algerians who had come from France to perform the hajj or annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

“I do not know where my wife is,” said Mizasha.

Interior ministry spokesperson General Mansur al-Turki said the death toll had reached 76 with another 62 people wounded and that recovery operations had now been completed.

“Saudis, French nationals of Arab origin and Yemenis are among the dead,” he said, adding that 40 bodies had yet to be identified.

Jordan said five of its nationals were missing, while officials in France said seven French nationals of Algerian origin were among those who died.

In another hospital ward in Mecca, a Yemeni who worked in a clothing store on the ground floor of the building said four of his Yemeni co-workers lost their lives.

“I just found myself across the street from the building and I looked up and it was a pile of rubble,” said Ali Qasim al-Rimi (35). “I do not know if I fled or someone pulled me out.”

A Bengali porter working at an adjacent hotel said he lost six of his compatriots.

The English-language Arab News said on Friday that Saudi authorities confirmed that three of the dead were Emiratis.

A group of pilgrims from Egypt said they were caught in a stampede on the crowded street in the Ghazzah neighbourhood where the accident happened about 200m north of the Grand Mosque, the most sacred site in Mecca.

“We were walking back from noon prayers and suddenly debris started falling down on us,” said Rajab al-Sayed (46).

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims usually flock to the vast mosque to perform the five-times-a-day Muslim prayers.

“We ran for our lives and two of my friends were taken down by the crowd,” added al-Sayed.

Mohammed Ali (68), who suffered some concussions, said he managed to get up but Mohammed Suleiman (70) was not so lucky.

“I was trampled on by the crowd,” said a distraught Sulieman as he lay in bed with a broken shoulder surrounded by his weeping wife and friends.

Emergency teams armed with sound-detecting gear have been working frantically since Thursday to try to locate survivors amid the rubble of the building, which an official charged was overcrowded.

“Through our inspection of the site ... there was a clear indication that the building was overloaded,” said regional civil defence director General Adel Zamzami.

Interior ministry spokesperson Mansur al-Turki also cast doubt on the soundness of the building structure, claiming that some additions might have been made illegally.

The tragedy came despite a massive deployment of security and civil defence personnel in a bid to prevent any repetitions of the deadly stampedes and structural failures that have marred previous pilgrimages. Stampedes killed 251 people in 2003 and 1 426 in 1990.

Surveyors were checking the structural safety of adjacent buildings and had already ordered two evacuated, Zamzami said.

He described the tragedy as “a small incident and not a disaster”, insisting it was “Allah’s will and this might happen any time”.

In previous years, camp fires have also sparked infernos in pilgrim. The kingdom has also been battling deadly unrest blamed on al-Qaeda sympathisers since 2003.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and Muslims are required to make it at least once in their lifetime if they have the means to do so.—AFP

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