Multi-Billion Construction Work Kills 107 Pilgrims in Mecca Just Weeks Before Hajj

Photo of the collapsed crane in Mecca's Grand Mosque. Image from @haythamabokhal1 on Twitter.

Photo of the collapsed crane in Mecca's Grand Mosque. Image from @haythamabokhal1 on Twitter.

When a red and white construction crane collapsed into Mecca's Grand Mosque on Friday, it killed 107 people and injured 238 others as of 12:40 a.m. local time, the Saudi Civil Defence reported on social media.

Tweets from Saudi Civil Defence with first news of the collapse.

Graphic photos showing streams of blood trickling down the steps of the mosque and crushed bodies piled on top of green prayer mats quickly spread through social networks. The video below, taken by a worshipper during the collapse, shows people attempting to escape.

According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) at 11:28 p.m. local time, the Official Spokesman of the Presidency of the Grand Mosque said that the collapse was “due to strong sandstorm, winds and torrential rains” earlier on Friday.

Another video, taken from a distance, shows the aftermath, and angles at a guard smiling:

However, this is not the first time such an incident has occurred. Several local news outlets reported two other incidents involving deaths and fires since work on the Grand Mosque expansion plans began in July.

With the approach of the Hajj season, an obligatory pilgrimage pillar of Islam that is only performed once a year during the week of Eid Al Adha, many questioned the Saudi government's decision to keep construction cranes in place as pilgrims began to multiply by the thousands.

Jamal Shogdar, a Saudi construction consultant, said in a widely-circulated tweet that he asked authorities to revise their strategy and consider stronger safety measures a few months ago. “But no one responded,” he added.

I asked authorities to revise their strategy and consider stronger safety measures a few months ago, but no one responded.

The following chart compiled using data from Saudi's Central Department of Statistics and Information shows that the number of pilgrims during Hajj season alone has been constantly exceeding two million worshippers for the past decade.

The total number of pilgrims performing Haj topped two million in 2014 (Source: CDSI)

The total number of pilgrims performing Hajj topped two million in 2014. (Source: CDSI)

The Saudi Gazette reported in June that “Deputy Minister of Hajj Essa Ruwas said the ministry had issued 5.4 million Umrah visas this season.” The Ministry of Hajj currently says in a banner on its website that the number of worshippers till August was 5,715,051 people.

The three-fold expansion plan of Mecca since the 1970s

In a report announcing the expansions earlier this year, the Ministry of Finance said the aim is to expand the mosque's capacity to hold 1,850,000 worshippers in total.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud announced in July he intended to complete the Grand Mosque's current expansion plan, dubbed as “The Saudi Third Expansion” by SPA, following the footsteps of his predecessor King Abdullah, who first ordered those expansions during his reign.

Current expansion plan considered largest in history [Source: Jabal Omar Development]

The current expansion plan is considered the largest in history. [Source: Jabal Omar Development]

Historically, King Abdulaziz himself had initiated expansions of the mosque to encompass the increasing numbers of pilgrims every year, said SPA. Work and construction to expand the mosque continue to date.

The following table shows a timeline of the mosque's various expansion plans since King Khalid took office in 1975 till King Abdullah's ten-year rule that ended this year, according to information from SPA.

King Reign Duration Grand Mosque Sector
King Khalid 1975-1982 Eastern Parks
King Fahd 1982-2005 Western Side
King Abdullah 2005-2015 Circumambulation Passage


The three-stage third expansion plan is “largest in history”

While work on the circumambulation passage and path expansions have been underway since King Abdullah, the current plan introduced five new projects, including “the holy mosque's main expansion building, the external parks, pedestrian-use tunnels, central services building and first ring road,” SPA reported in July, quoting a report by the Ministry of Finance. Expansions also include the following sectors:

The external parks, flyovers, stairs, complex of central services building, services tunnel, security buildings, the hospital, pedestrian-use tunnels, transportation stations, bridges leading to the mosque, first ring road surrounding the holy mosque area, and the infrastructure which includes power stations, water reservoirs and flood drainage system.

The Ministry of Finance said that this is the largest expansion plan in history. The breakdown is as follows:

The report said the total building area amounts to 1,470,000 sq.m., the area of the expansions will reach 320,00 sq.m. to accommodate 300,000 worshippers while the area of the premises amounts to 175,000 sq.m. to make room for 280,000 worshippers.

The bridges and flyovers’ area amounts to 45,000 sq.m. to carry 50,000 worshippers, the area of the services building is 550,000 sq.m. which will accommodate 310,000 worshippers. The area of the eastern stairs will be 263,000 sq. m. that is enough for 150,000 worshippers.

The Masaa area [circumambulation passage and path] was increased by 57,000 sq.m. to accommodate 70,000 worshippers, with the capacity of the mosque increasing from 44,000 person/hour at the circumambulation path to 118,000 person/hour.

Worshippers’ deaths prompt questions

Some Twitter users mourned the deaths after the crane collapse with prayer, Quran verses, and poetry. Others remarked that their death, although tragic, is a blessing as it occurred on a Friday while praying in the holiest spot on Earth.

A Saudi scholar said in a YouTube video that God has “chosen … the martyrs of the collapse,” in his sacred home, an hour before Maghrib prayer (considered to be a holy hour), on a Friday.

He also said that the incident is not related the 9/11 attacks, as many conspiracy theorists claimed, and that the authorities in charge of Hajj have committed no error.

Others, however, disagree. Twitter user Jamal, who has almost 70 thousand followers, said that now is the time to hand over the role of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to a parliament that represents all Muslim countries as the current command has “proven its failure.”

It is necessary to hand over role of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to a parliament that represents all Muslim countries and end the Al Zahemeeri that has proven to be an obscene failure

Another user also agreed that the authorities should be held accountable for their decision to keep the grandiose construction work going.

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