PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Pakistani teacher has described how he saved his wife from a deadly stampede in Saudi Arabia by pulling her from her wheelchair as fellow haj pilgrims were trampled to death around them.
At least 769 people died in a crush of pilgrims near Mecca on Thursday when two large groups converged at a crossroads, in the worst disaster to befall the annual event in a quarter of a century.
Alamzeb Khan, 48, and his wife, who was suffering from a high fever, were almost killed when the crowd panicked, he told Reuters on Monday.
The stampede at Mina, where the couple had gone to throw stones at three pillars representing the devil, part of the haj ritual, looked like the “day of judgment,” he told Reuters.
“To save their lives, some pilgrims trampled other pilgrims as if they were not human,” he said.
The crush began when two groups of pilgrims, some from Iran and some from Africa, crashed into each other, he said.
“The elderly, women and sick pilgrims were the first to fall. They fell and were trampled by others,” he said. Khan fell too and injured his arm, but he battled against the crowd to grab his terrified wife’s hands. The wheelchair had saved her from being pushed over, he said.
“I feared she had been crushed by the pilgrims, but luckily she survived. I immediately grabbed her out of the wheelchair and pushed her to the side. Then we started climbing the steel fence to save our lives,” he recalled.
“There was no one to help the others. Everybody was saving his or her own life. Within no time, there were human bodies lying upon each other. Those underneath were screaming in pain and crying for help but there was no one to help,” Khan said.
After they scaled the fence, the couple went to a nearby hospital, but it was overflowing with casualties, he said. Some bodies remained on the ground for hours, he said.
Like many caught up in the tragedy, he complained about a slow response from Pakistani officials. Scores of Pakistanis remain missing and at least 40 were killed.
“They didn’t answer our calls to the telephone numbers that they had given us to call during an emergency,” he said.
On Monday, Khan and his wife, wrapped in white shawls and clutching copies of the Koran, were surrounded by sobbing relatives at Peshawar airport as the first flights carrying victims of the tragedy arrived in Pakistan from Saudi Arabia.
“For two days we didn’t have any contact with them. We thought they are either dead or seriously injured,” said one relative, as Khan embraced his sons.
Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Janet Lawrence