Riyadh, Sept 12: High winds were to blame for the toppling of a massive crane that smashed into Mecca's Grand Mosque and killed at least 107 people, including two Indian women, ahead of the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage, the head of Saudi Arabia's civil defence directorate said today.
The disaster during a violent thunderstorm that roared through Islam's holiest city on Friday afternoon was the deadliest incident in years surrounding the hajj, which gets underway in full later this month.
Images shared on social media showed a horrifying scene. The crane boom pierced through the roof of the mosque, bringing down slabs of reinforced concrete and leaving bodies lying amid pools of blood on the polished mosque floors as frightened survivors screamed in panic.
The director general of civil defence, Suleiman bin Abdullah al-Amro, told satellite broadcaster Al-Arabiya that the unusually powerful winds that toppled the crane also tore down trees and signs as a storm whipped through the area.
He denied reports that lightning brought down the red-and-white crane, which was being used for the mosque's expansion, or that some of those killed died in a stampede.
"The speed of the wind was not normal," he said. "There was no way for people to know that the crane was about to collapse for them to scramble," he added.
An amateur video circulating online, however, appeared to show a frantic scramble in the moments after the crane collapsed as scores of people pushed and jostled one another in a struggle to get out.
At least 238 people were injured in the accident, according to civil defence figures. Authorities did not provide details on the victims' nationalities, but it was likely that the tragedy will touch several countries.
At least 238 people were injured in the accident
US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his condolences and said the US 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, and Muslims the world over pray in the direction of the Kaaba, which is also at the heart of the hajj rituals. Performing the pilgrimage during one's lifetime is a duty for all able-bodied adult Muslims.
This year's pilgrimage is expected to start around September 22.
Nearly 910,000 pilgrims have already arrived in the country for this year's hajj season, according to official figures.
Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Mansouri, the spokesman for the presidency of Mecca and Medina mosque affairs, said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency that the crane struck a circular area around the Kaaba and a nearby walkway.
The crane was one of several surrounding the mosque to support an ongoing expansion of the sanctuary.