Relatives take dead home after Indian temple stampede
NEW DELHI: Tearful relatives collected bodies Wednesday after at least 257 Hindu devotees, mainly women and children, were crushed or burnt to death during a pilgrimage disaster in western India.
Some 300,000 to 400,000 people were packed into a hilltop temple and a narrow access road when a stampede and fire erupted Tuesday at a religious festival held annually in Maharashtra state. “Post mortems have confirmed 257 people are dead,” Additional Director General of Police V.N. Deshmukh told AFP after earlier putting the toll at 330. Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh put the death toll at 267.
Police said more than 200 were believed to have been injured in the tragedy near the temple-studded town of Wai in Satara district, 300 kilometres (180 miles) south of Bombay. It was the deadliest stampede in years in India where sometimes millions of people mass under hazardous safety conditions, and where there are seldom proper exit routes if disaster strikes.
Witnesses said the stampede started around midday when pilgrims fell during the climb to the Mandradevi temple dedicated to the deity Kalubai 1,200 metres (4,300 feet) above sea level, and fire broke out in nearby shops.
Hundreds of thousands had flocked to the temple to mark the auspicious occasion of the full moon. Despite the tragedy, scores of people were still entering the temple complex Wednesday to worship Kalubai, revered by the farming and warrior castes.
Charred shops and destroyed makeshift restaurants lined the route that was a scene of horror Tuesday as screaming people scrambled over each other.
Bodies of the victims had been moved to hospitals where they lay on blocks of ice or in neat rows on the floor covered in white cloths, limbs awkardly protruding. Grief-stricken relatives were collecting them for cremation.
“My sister had gone with her friends to pray and then she was caught in the stampede,” said a dazed Dashart Sonar as he collected the body of his 25-year-old sibling, shrouded in white cloth, from a Wai hospital. “Every year she used to come here but we never expected something like this to happen.”
Police said a coconut-breaking ritual at the temple doors might have triggered the deadly chain of events. Police superintendent C.P. Kumbhar said the ceremony made the ground slippery with coconut water and some pilgrims who were dancing while holding the goddess’s idol above their heads fell over. They were then trampled by incoming hordes of devotees.
He said news of people getting crushed upset waiting devotees, who turned violent and started torching shops on the narrow route to the temple. The fire caused cooking gas cylinders to explode and sparked more panic. “This led to the huge stampede, leading to the disaster,” Kumbhar said.
Another witness, Shankar Vadare, 21, also said coconut water outside the temple made the path slippery and some people fell. “When they slipped, those behind toppled on them,” said Vadare, 21, a sweets vendor outside the temple.
“Seeing the scene, some policemen started pushing people back which angered the crowd who started burning some shops. This caused a short-circuit. Then there was total chaos and that was when the stampede got really bad.”
TV footage showed an explosion followed by flames and black smoke billowing from atop the hill. People were seen fleeing for their lives down the slopes.
One of the pilgrims, Shivan Chavan, 40, was on top of the hill when the stampede broke out. “Suddenly there was a lot of pushing of people. There was huge panic and chaos. Women and children were crying. Somehow I got down safely.” The tragedy came on the eve of Republic Day, one of India’s biggest official holidays. Maharashtra cancelled celebrations because of the deaths. afp