At least 12 people have been killed and 13 injured in a stampede on a religious shrine in Indian-administered Kashmir as thousands of pilgrims gathered to pray.
The disaster happened around 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day while it was still dark on the route to Vaishno Devi Shrine, one of the most revered Hindu sites in the area.
“People were falling over each other … It was difficult to figure out whose leg or arms were entangled in whose,” witness Ravinder, who mentioned only one name, told AFP. “I helped retrieve eight bodies by the time ambulances arrived after about half an hour. I feel lucky to be alive, but I still tremble from the memory of what I saw.”
An official said there was a rush to offer special prayers for the new year, but this was not confirmed by others.
Mahesh, a devotee who gave only one name, told the Associated Press that the stampede occurred near one of the gates where pilgrims entered and exited the route to the shrine.
“Something happened near one of the gates and I was surrounded by a crowd of people. I choked and fell, but somehow I managed to get up,” he said. “I saw people moving over the bodies. It was a horrible sight, but I was able to help save some of the injured.”
Another devotee named Priyansh said he and 10 friends from New Delhi arrived to visit the shrine on Friday evening and that two of his friends died in the incident.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his condolences on Twitter. “Extremely saddened by the loss of lives as a result of a stampede,” Modi wrote.
Before the pandemic, about 100,000 devotees used to trek up a steep winding path every day to the narrow cave containing the shrine to Vaishno Devi, about 60 km from the city of Jammu. Authorities had limited the daily number to 25,000, but witnesses and press reports said it may have been exceeded several times.
Two storms in as many months in 2008 – one in Rajasthan and one in Himachal Pradesh – killed more than 370 people. Others in Kerala in 2011 and in Madhya Pradesh two years later killed more than 100 each.
In the latest incident, other reports suggested that an altercation had broken out between devotees.
Rescue operations began immediately and the injured – some of whom are reported to be in serious condition – were taken to hospital.
Video footage on social media showed small minibus ambulances with flashing lights rushing to hospitals while it was still dark, as well as huge crowds.
Access to the shrine was halted after the stampede, but was later resumed.
Witness Ravinder said the crush took place at a point where huge crowds of people coming down from the shrine meet those going up. He estimated that there were at least 100,000 people.
“No one checked the registration receipts of the devotees. I’ve been there many times, but never seen such a flow of people,” he said. “It wasn’t until some of us managed to lift a corpse with our hands that people could see it” [what was happening] and made room for the bodies to be moved,” he said.
With Agence France-Presse and Associated Press