There was no religious stampede, but some years ago, as my wife and I and some 76,000 other people were in the process of excruciatingly slowly walking out of a Denver (Colorado) Broncos football game at Mile High Stadium, I suddenly felt an acute sense of foreboding.
I had never before experienced such a dense crush of humanity in such a tight space.
And then something happened.
A woman ahead of us in the dense throng stumbled, and while people around her slowed to help her remain upright, the bulk of the crowd, unaware of what was happening ahead, continued surging forward. I felt the insistent force of packed humanity pushing against my back.
But the woman quickly gained her footing, and the jam-packed horde, without further ado, resumed its relentless journey along narrow, snaking walkways toward the exits.
I sensed how inherently dangerous the situation was and how tragically it could have played out.
By that time I had already lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for a number of years, and deadly stampedes were common when several million Muslims each year converged on the holy city of Mecca (aka Makkah), the birthplace of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, during the important annual Islamic Haj pilgrimage. In one incident alone, in 1990, 1,426 pilgrims died in a crammed pedestrian tunnel choke-point in Mecca.
I was thinking of these things this week after 44 mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, including some Americans, were trampled or crushed to death during a religious stampede in a narrow passageway at Mount Meron, Israel, on April 30 during the spring festival of Lag b’Omer honoring second-century Jewish mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The rabbi is buried on the mountain. Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims annually throng the festival, the New York Times reported.
Human stampedes internationally are not always religious, but most commonly they are, conflating two highly dangerous elements: emotionally charged religious believers with gargantuan crowds pushing their way through spaces far too small to safely accommodate them. The two global epicenters for serial stampedes are Saudi Arabia, the city of Mecca in particular, and vastly overcrowded India with its epic annual pilgrimages to sacred Hindu sites. As Sunni Islam monolithically dominates Saudi Arabia, the religion of Hinduism dominates India.
Stampedes elsewhere in the world seem generally to involve frantic crushes at rock concerts, soccer matches or, in the United States, shopping meccas, like Walmart (particularly on “Black Friday,” the frenzied shopping day the day after Thanksgiving). Walmart shopping on Black Friday has been called “America’s Running of the Bulls,” referencing the dangerous annual “running of bulls” to the bullring in Pamplona, Spain, glorified by Ernest Hemingway in his novel, The Sun Also Rises. Gorings and tramplings of intrepid runners by bulls at the Pamplona festival are common.
But the body count is exponentially smaller for those secular quasi-stampedes.
In religious stampedes, on the other hand, hundreds if not thousands routinely die in a single event. Millions of passionate religious believers jammed into the same space at the same time appears to be the main culprit.
Take Saudi Arabia’s startlingly frequent history of mass fatalities in Mecca, most commonly during the “Stoning of the Devil” ritual during a time-constricted period in tight spaces, where the faithful, often with great ardor, gather stones and fling them against a symbolic stone edifice. Although Saudi authorities over the decades, in response to recurring stampede tragedies, have made significant safety changes, the staggeringly huge masses of global Muslims converging on Mecca for Haj have often defeated them.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Haj pilgrims have died over the years in Mecca area stampedes, and many thousands more injured. In the deadliest stampede, more than 1,426 died in a Mecca tunnel in 1990, and more than 700 reportedly perished in 2015 in the Mina area just outside Mecca (some unverified reports put the 2015 death count at more than 2,000).
Frequently, stampedes result when swarms of people are trying to move in both directions in tightly confined areas, and vigorous pushing and shoving often cause panic — which is when victims get knocked over and trampled, or crushed, by wild-eyed crowds whose momentum can’t be stopped.
In India, historical data indicates that 2,622 faithful died and another 3,248 were injured during deadly stampedes from 1820 to 2016. In the worst historical incident, some 800 drowned or were trampled to death, and hundreds were injured, in Allahabad in 1954 when the Ganges river changed course and severely limited space for millions of pilgrims at a Hindu Kumbh Mela festival.
Since that religious stampede, Indian public safety authorities have instituted safety changes, but the swarms of humanity attending these religious gatherings have exponentially exploded. According to The Hindu newspaper:
“An estimated 100 million devotees attended the 2013 Kumbh over 55 days, [resulting in] a city of tents spread over 4,000 acres or roughly the size of 3,000 football fields.”
It’s difficult to visualize the horror these stampedes unleash. Hajj pilgrim Ethar El-Katatney, a journalist and blogger who experienced the 2015 Mina tragedy, reported that “people were trying to push their way I opposite directions — some headed to the site of the stoning, some coming back from their previous ritual,” according to a CNN report. CNN wrote:
“Heavy pushing ensued,” El-Katatney told CNN. “I’m at a loss of words to describe what happened. This massive pushing is what caused the high number of casualties among the pilgrims.”
After the stampede, it took hours for rescue workers to try to tend to all those trampled.
“The ambulances, the sirens were overwhelming,” El-Katatney said. “For hours and hours, you could hear them constantly.”
El-Katatney said the sight of the carnage was simply “horrendous.”
“It’s literally a pile of bodies of people who … pushed, they shoved, they panicked, they screamed,” she said. “It was hot, someone fell, others trampled and they got stampeded.”
Time pressures may have contributed to the disaster, El-Katatney said.
“There’s so little time to complete the rituals,” she said.
Sadly, there is a clear solution to these religious stampede horrors: greatly extend the time period for mass religious rituals and greatly limit the number of people allowed at any site simultaneously. And prohibit two-way pedestrian traffic at choke points.
But because it’s religion and cloaked in divine assumptions that what is preordained cannot be adjusted, it just hasn’t been possible.
After all, supernatural religion isn’t rational, and never will be.
So the needless deaths will very likely continue.