Severe overcrowding, lack of exits and mud contributed to a deadly stampede in India

In World


HATHRAS, India (AP) — Severe overcrowding and a lack of exits contributed to a stampede at a religious festival in northern India, authorities said Wednesday, leaving at least 121 people dead as the faithful surged towards the preacher to touch him and chaos ensued.

Five of those died on Wednesday morning, local official Manish Chaudhry said, and 28 people were still being treated in a hospital.

Deadly stampedes are relatively common at Indian religious festivals, where large crowds gather in small areas with shoddy infrastructure and few safety measures.

Some quarter of a million people turned up for the event Tuesday that was permitted to accommodate 80,000. It’s not clear how many made it inside the giant tent set up in a muddy field in a village in Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh state.

It was also not clear what sparked the panic. But the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, told reporters that a crowd of devotees rushed towards the preacher to touch him as he was descending from the stage, and volunteers struggled to intervene.

An initial report from the police suggested that thousands of people then thronged the exits, and many slipped on the muddy ground, causing them to fall and be crushed in the crowd. Most of the dead were women.

The chaos appeared to continue outside the tent as well as devotees ran towards the preacher, a Hindu guru known locally as Bhole Baba, as he left in a vehicle. His security personnel pushed the crowd back, causing more people to fall, according to officials.

Authorities are investigating and searching for Bhole as well as other organizers, whose whereabouts are not known.

Binod Sokhna, who lost his mother, daughter and wife, wept as he walked out of a morgue on Wednesday.

“My son called me and said, ‘Papa, mother is no more. Come here immediately. My wife is no more,’” he said, crying.

Bhole’s Sri Jagar Guru Baba organization had spent more than two weeks preparing for the event.

Devotees from across the state, which with over 200 million people is India’s most populous, traveled to the village, with rows of parked vehicles stretching 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles).

State official Ashish Kumar said there were insufficient exits in the vast tent. It’s not clear how many there were.

Experts said the event violated safety norms. “The function was held in a makeshift tent without ensuring multiple exit routes,” said Sanjay Srivastava, a disaster management expert.

On Tuesday, hundreds of relatives had gathered at local hospitals, wailing in distress at the sight of the dead, placed on stretchers and covered in white sheets on the grounds outside. Buses and trucks also carried dozens of victims to morgues.

Sonu Kumar was one of many local residents who helped lift and move dead bodies after the disaster. He criticized the preacher: “He sat in his car and left. And his devotees here fell one upon another.”

“The screams were so heart-wrenching. We have never seen anything like this before in our village,” Kumar added.

In 2013, pilgrims visiting a temple for a popular Hindu festival in central Madhya Pradesh state trampled one another amid fears that a bridge would collapse. At least 115 were crushed to death or died in the river.

In 2011, more than 100 Hindu devotees died in a crush at a religious festival in the southern state of Kerala.

___

This version has been updated to correct that a state official said there were insufficient exits, not that there was only one.

___

Banerjee reported from Lucknow, India. Associated Press writer Krutika Pathi contributed from New Delhi.





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