The Sunday TimesPlus

27th April 1997



When the tents were ablaze

Caught in the panic- stricken crowd fleeing the fire at Mena, many Sri Lankan pilgrims had a harrowing ordeal.

Shelani de Silva reports.........

Mrs. FowzieBahurdeenMinister MoulanaMnister Fowzie
Five thousand Sri Lankans were among the vast throng of pilgrims in Mecca who came face -to-face with death as a gas cylinder fire spread in the huge camp at Mena. Some of them, including Ministers A.H. M Fowzie and Alavi Moulana returned to the island last week, after their nightmarish experience.

Altogether five Sri Lankans were feared dead in the incident and the blaze spread panic among thousands of pilgrims, none of the Lankans died due to the fire but in the stampede that followed.

The blaze which engulfed 70,000 tents killed more than 300 devotees and more than 1,500 pilgrims were injured.

Tuesday, April 15 was a bright sunny day in Mena. By noon, the heat was almost unbearable. Some two million pilgrims clad in white robes were huddled in tents. Just as the clock turned noon a loud explosion was heard from a tent. The explosion had many pilgrims rushing out of their tents. Within minutes a thick black smoke was seen enveloping the sky.

The slight wind suddenly grew into a fierce gale,and the entire place became a fire ball. People were seen pushing their way through the tiny passages leading to the road.

Men dragging their wives, children clinging on to their mothers screaming in fear of losing their way.

The 70,000 tents in Mena were situated on bare land surrounded by mountains. However once the fire broke out many pilgrims had taken refuge in the mountains little knowing that the fire was spreading on to the mountain. Unfortunately most of those who climbed up were severely burnt.

InnayaInnaya Sainulabdeen: fire claimed her life
Innaya Zainulabdeen, 53, was one of the Sri Lankan pilgrims who died in the stampede following the explosion.

When The Sunday Times visited their home in Kotahena, Ms Zainulabeen’s eldest son Badhurdeen was getting the final details of his mother’s death from a relative in Mecca.

Though the family was grieving over her death Badhurdeen said the only consolation was that she had died in the holy city and after visiting Mecca.

‘That alone is a great thing. But as humans we do grieve our loss. No words could describe our loss but we feel it was God’s calling.

We are awaiting the return of the rest of the family to get to know what exactly happened. We only know that she was caught in the stampede. I did try to talk to my father who also made the pilgrimage over the phone but we broke down,’ he said.

Badhurdeen says it was quite possible for his mother to have got caught in the stampede, as she was by nature a timid person. " Even at home she would get scared for the slightest noise. She was even afraid of crackers so I can imagine how she would have panicked when the fire broke out," he said.

A group of ten from their family had left on March 23 on the pilgrimage. Ms Innya who had wanted to visit the holy land had not been able to go in earlier years due to various reasons. So when her son and uncle persuaded her to go this Haj she readily agreed.

The family had been informed of the death on Wednesday night through a relative, but since it was not confirmed Badhurdeen had not told the rest of the family. The next day they got news saying that Ms Innaya was in hospital due to burn injuries. Finally, on Friday as Moslems celebrated the Haj festival the death was confirmed.

The Sri Lankan delegation which was led by Minister A H M Fowzie and Minister Alavi Moulana returned to the island on Wednesday morning. The Ministers related their horrifying experience. The Sri Lankan VIPs, they said, had been occupying a special tent a few miles away from the other tents.

The fire had occurred in a tent across the bridge. Once the explosion occurred many had felt that it would subside but things turned bad. Minister Alavi Moulana said that at first they had not wanted to leave their tent but -once the fire caught up with the wind they too came out onto the street.

‘We were all inside our tent when we heard a loud noise. After a few minutes we came out to see a fire breaking out in a far off tent. We watched for about fifteen minutes and there was no sign of the fire going down. By this time the wind was getting strong and we could feel the heat of the fire. Since the fire was spreading towards our tent we had to leave," he said.

Although Minister Moulana left with Minister Fowzie once they got onto the street they had lost sight of each other.

But most of all Minister Moulana was worried about his son and granddaughter, as they were in a separate tent. "The stampede was terrible, there were people shouting and trying to squeeze through the crowd. After some desperate moments, like a Godsend I spotted my son and my grand daughter shouted when she saw me," he said.

They escaped under trying conditions. "If you lost your balance it was the end. No matter how difficult it was we kept walking, for if you fell you were likely to be trampled. I helped two Bangladeshi women but I remember I too fell at one point and can’t remember who helped me up.

"If not, I too would have been dead," he added.

"Most of the old women found it difficult to walk. I saw an old lady pleading with her two children to leave her behind as she found it difficult to continue. She was screaming for them to go ahead as otherwise they too would have been trampled.

"They, in sheer desperation left their mother. It was very sad. There was another incident where I saw a family of seven burnt to death," he said.

The experience Minister Moulana went through may have been a near-death one, but he claims that he wished that he was caught in the fire, for he felt it was a great thing to die in the holy city,as all those who sacrificed their lives are considered martyrs.

Minister Fowzie said that he did not panic at first when he saw the flames from a distance and had left his tent only on the insistence of the Saudi officials.

Once he joined the crowd he had met his wife and son and asked his family to proceed as he wanted to stay back and help the injured.

Minister Fowzie blamed the pilgrims for the destruction created at Mena. "The authorities cannot be blamed. The pilgrims should no better to be careful where millions of people are ataying in a small area.," he said.

‘It was so difficult helping the people especially the women who just had no strength.

"But fortunately there were only a few Sri Lankans who were affected.

" Most of them were Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. It was only around ten in the night that I was able to find my way towards Mecca.

"With police directions I was able to trace my wife and son, and find out whether they returned safely," he said.

Ms Fowzie said that she was not afraid to leave her husband as her son was with her and she firmly believed that they would be together.

They had walked nearly nine km and finally reached Mecca, late in the evening. Besides the distance, her son who had lost his slippers had found it difficult to walk due to the heat.

"His feet were getting burnt. As we had to walk a few miles he wore my socks, that helped a little," she said.

The tragedy in Mena this year follows other Haj disasters that have taken a terrible toll of human life. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims were crushed to death in a tunnel.

In 1994, 270 pilgrims lost their lives in a stampede in Mena and air crashes in 1991 claimed a further 352 lives.

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