Friday, January 06, 2006


At least 20 dead as new tragedy hits Mecca pilgrimage

MECCA, Saudi Arabia : At least 20 Muslim pilgrims were killed and dozens hurt in the Saudi holy city of Mecca when an aging hostel collapsed in the latest tragedy to hit the annual hajj, an official said. Witnesses spoke of 23 fatalities and scores of injured, but the health ministry spokesman Khaled al-Mirghalani said "at least 20 were killed and 59 wounded." Major General Alwani Jedawi, head of civil defence for the pilgrimage, had told AFP the hostel, known as Luluat Al-Kheir (Pearl of Grace) was old. The deputy governor of Mecca, Dawoud al-Fayez, said after inspecting the scene that it was too early to provide a final death toll. "Give us a chance. We are still looking for survivors," he told reporters at the site of the tragedy in Gazzah Street, some 200 metres (yards) north of the Great Mosque -- Islam's holiest shrine. Rescue teams using earthmovers and heavy lifting equipment were frantically searching for survivors among the rubble of the multi-storey building, an AFP correspondent on the scene reported. Workers in blue jumpsuits were seen moving around with sound-detecting devices in search for buried survivors. Medics were seen pulling out one bloodied survivor with a respirator over his face while a huge yellow crane lifted off slabs of concrete threatening to entomb other people. A dead woman was later pulled from under the rubble with her body covered in a white sheet. Anguished survivors pleaded with the emergency services to rescue missing loved ones trapped beneath the hostel, which toppled like house of cards. "My two brothers are inside," Tunisian pilgrim Aiysha bin Jaber, 66, begged the security personnel pushing her back from the tight cordon set up around the collapsed building. Jalal Abdelrahim, a Bangladeshi porter at the neighbouring Al-Zaydi hotel, said six of his Bengali friends who worked in shops at the bottom of the collapsed building were still missing. Witnesses spoke of their horror at the speed with which the block collapsed after a fire. "It looked like a scene from September 11," said Talhah al-Mazi, 40, referring to the 2001 terror attacks in the United States. "I saw people rushing out, crying and screaming for help," he told AFP, adding that the cave-in happened just as pilgrims were finishing midday prayers in the square outside. French pilgrim Abderrahmane Ghoul said a firefighting helicopter was already tackling the initial blaze when the tower collapsed. "It started with a fire in the building. A helicopter started to sprinkle water to put out the fire. Afterwards, the building collapsed," Ghoul told AFP, adding that most of the hostel's residents were from India or the United Arab Emirates. Some Pakistani and Libyan pilgrims were also reportedly staying there. Despite the tragedy, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims carried on with the rituals of their faith, flocking to the nearby Great Mosque for sunset prayers just hours after the collapse. Surveyors were checking the structural safety of adjacent buildings and had already ordered two evacuated, said regional civil defence director General Adel Zamzami. He described the tragedy as "a small incident and not a disaster," claiming it was "Allah's will and this might happen any time". There was no immediate word on what might have started the fire. In previous years, camp fires have sparked infernos in pilgrim encampments but the kingdom has also been battling deadly unrest blamed on Al-Qaeda sympathizers since 2003. With more than 2.5 million pilgrims expected to converge on Mecca for the hajj, the Saudi authorities had set a midnight Wednesday deadline for the last pilgrims to arrive in the oil-rich kingdom. They had also deployed some 60,000 security, firefighting and civil defence personnel to try 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. 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
I do hope my dear is ok out there.I'm really hoping...

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