MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) -At least 76 people died in the collapse of a Muslim pilgrims’ hostel in Saudi Arabia days before the annual haj pilgrimage, a Saudi official said on Friday.
The Interior Minister official said on state television he did not expect the number of dead to rise much further and that rescue operations had wound up earlier this evening.
Officials said earlier that 62 had been injured in the collapse of the building on Thursday in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, where more than a million pilgrims have gathered.
Saudi authorities had said at least 53 people were killed in the incident, which took place during the mid-day bustle of a narrow market street.
The building was at least six storeys high and 30 years old.
The tragedy occurred days before Sunday’s start of the five-day haj, when 2.5 million Muslims cram into the mountain city where Islam was born.
Deadly stampedes, attacks by Islamist militants or the possibility that a dangerous virus could spread through the crowds like wildfire are three eventualities worrying the Saudi organizers of this year’s pilgrimage.
But pilgrims gathering on Friday at the Grand Mosque in Mecca said they were elated to be able to do haj, a duty for every able-bodied Muslim at least once in a lifetime.
“If anything is going to happen to us, it is God’s will — whether it’s bird flu, a building collapsing or anything else. I didn’t even know about the hostel,” said Abdel-Hakim, a 23-year-old Nigerian.
The haj has been marred by deaths in recent years. Some 250 pilgrims died in a stampede in 2004 during the stoning of three stone pillars which symbolize the devil.
Health experts warn the huge crowds could create the conditions in which a pandemic strain of bird flu emerges.
Many pilgrims come from Asian countries, where the H5N1 form of bird flu has killed more than 70 people since 2003. Two children in Turkey, which has a large haj contingent, have died from the virus in recent days.
Saudi Arabia says it has spent 25 million riyals ($6.7 million) on Tamiflu, a drug that can reduce bird flu’s severity if taken within days of symptoms showing.
The authorities, also wary of any militant attacks, have deployed a record 60,000 security men.