Mecca Grand Mosque tragedy updates: An act of God?
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
As Saudi Arabia’s King Salman vowed to find out what caused a crane collapse that killed 107 people at Mecca’s Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, two days after a crane collapse, the region’s governor filed an investigative report on 14 September. Prince Khaled al-Faisal has submitted today the results of the investigation, the Saudi Press Agency said. Faisal sent the findings to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef for presentation to King Salman, it said, without disclosing any contents.
The Hajj, a pillar of the Muslim religion which last year drew about two million faithful, will take place despite Friday’s tragedy, Saudi authorities said as crowds returned to pray a day after the incident. The crane which collapsed during a thunderstorm with extremely high winds was one of several working on a multi-billion-dollar expansion of the Mosque to accommodate mounting numbers of faithful. The pilgrimage is a must for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford.
Indonesians and Indians were among those killed when the crane collapsed, while the injured included Malaysians, Egyptians, Iranians, Turks, Afghans and Pakistanis. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had already arrived in Mecca when the massive red and white crane toppled over during a Friday thunderstorm. “We will investigate all the reasons and afterwards declare the results to the citizens,” Salman said after visiting the site, one of Islam’s holiest.
The number of dead in the crane crash has gone up to 111 so far, while 331 people are injured. At least 11 Indian Hajj pilgrims have died in the crane crash accident at the Grand Mosque in Makkah in Saudi Arabia, taking the toll to 11 so far, the Indian external affairs ministry said on Sunday. The Indian mission in Jeddah was extending all possible assistance to the families of the 11 deceased pilgrims to complete the formalities in Makkah. Indian officials in Makkah were continuing to provide assistance to the 19 injured Indian pilgrims. The Indian External Affairs ministry released a list of nine dead pilgrims — Mohd Hanif, Tabassum, Hassan Kharaj, Zafar Sheikh, Zakira Begum, Mohd Abdul Khadar, Fatima Begum, Shameem Bano, Khader Bee. In Hyderabad, Telangana State Haj Committee’s special officer S.A. Shukoor told IANS that a couple hailing from Krishna district in coastal Andhra Pradesh had died. They were among the nine Indian pilgrims who were identified in the mortuary. They were Abdul Khader (38) and his wife Fatima Begum (32).
King Salman vowed to reveal what caused the crane to topple into a courtyard of the Grand Mosque, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims have converged ahead of the hajj pilgrimage later this month. “We will investigate all the reasons and afterwards declare the results to the citizens,” Salman said after visiting the site, one of Islam’s holiest.
Prince Faisal ordered a probe as soon as the tragedy struck.
The investigative committee was headed by Hesham al-Faleh, an adviser to Prince Khaled, who was under orders to submit the findings urgently. Nationalities of most of those killed have still not been revealed but they included Indians, Indonesians and a Thai. Among the 238 injured were Iranians, Turks, Afghans, Egyptians and Pakistanis.
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.
The cranes soar skywards over the sprawling expansion taking place beneath the Mecca Royal Clock Tower, the world’s third tallest building. For years, work has been under way on a 400,000-square-metre (4.3-million-square-feet) enlargement of the Grand Mosque to allow it to accommodate up to 2.2 million people at once.
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. A Saudi official said the hajj, expected to start on September 21, would go ahead despite the tragedy. “It definitely will not affect the Hajj this season, and the affected part will probably be fixed in a few days,” said the official.
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 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. The Health Ministry said 394 people were treated at medical facilities after the crane collapse, and 158 of the injured remain hospitalized.
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. 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.
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. 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.
King Salman expressed his condolences to the families of the dead, and then visited a local hospital “to check on the health of the injured”. “Suddenly, I heard thunder and then we heard a very loud noise. That was the sound of the crane falling,” Mohammed, a Moroccan pilgrim, said.
Saudi officials have not yet removed the crane. 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 13 Sept the imam of the Grand Mosque, Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al Sudais 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.”
Parts of the Grand Mosque remained sealed off around the wreckage of the crane, which also injured around 200 people when it crashed into a courtyard. Pictures of the incident on Twitter showed bloodied bodies strewn across the courtyard, where part of the crane had landed atop an ornate, arched and colonnaded section of the complex.
Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, suggested that the authorities had been negligent by having a series of cranes overlooking the mosque. “They do not care about the heritage, and they do not care about health and safety,” he said. Alawi is an outspoken critic of redevelopment at the Muslim holy sites, which he says is wiping away tangible links to the Prophet Mohammed. But an engineer for the Saudi Binladin Group, the developer, said the crane had been installed in “an extremely an act of God professional way” and that there had been no technical problem.
There was little mourning among pilgrims, who snapped pictures of the collapsed metal and continued with their prayers and rituals. An investigative committee has immediately and urgently begun searching for the cause of the collapse, SPA reported. The contractor, engaged in a major expansion of the mosque, has been directed to ensure the safety of all other cranes at the site, it added.
Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, former head of Mecca’s religious police, told AFP the accident was a “test” from God. “We need to accept what happened,” he said, at the same time calling for a thorough investigation. An engineer involved in the construction work also said the same.
It was not the first tragedy to strike Mecca pilgrims, although the hajj has been practically incident-free in recent years. In 2006, several hundred people died in a stampede during the Stoning of the Devil ritual in nearby Mina, following a similar incident two years earlier.
Condolences came in from around the world, including from Arab leaders, as well as from Britain, Canada, India and Nigeria.
True, God’s decisions are final! But is the Mecca Grand Mosque tragedy an act of god? A punishment?