JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) -The death toll from the collapse of an aging hostel in the holy city of Mecca rose to 34, as Saudi rescue teams hunted through the rubble for survivors.
The multi-storey hotel collapsed Thursday in the latest deadly tragedy to mark the hajj or annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest place in Islam.
“As of 2:00 am (2300 GMT) we had 34 dead people and 64 wounded,” the head of the pilgrimage civil defense force told AFP in Jeddah.
“We may find some more people under the rubble, but we are looking to finish our work today and reopen the road,” said Major General Alwani Jeddawi Friday, who has been leading the rescue effort.
Earthmovers and heavy lifting equipment had worked through the night as rescuers hunted for survivors.
Interior ministry spokesman General Mansul al-Turki said Thursday that the rubble of the hostel in a crowded street near the Grand Mosque was being removed “very carefully” in the hope of finding entombed survivors.
The spokesman gave no breakdown of the nationalities of the dead, who included at least eight women. But survivors said most pilgrims staying in the hostel came from India, Libya, Pakistan or the United Arab Emirates.
Emergency teams armed with sound-detecting gear have been working frantically since Thursday to try to locate survivors amid the rubble of the Luluat Al-Kheir (Pearl of Grace) hostel, which an official charged was overcrowded.
“Through our inspection of the site… there was a clear indication that the building was overloaded,” said regional civil defence director General Adel Zamzami.
Turki also cast doubt on the soundness of the building structure, claiming that “some additions might have been made illegally.”
On Thursday, witnesses spoke of their horror at the speed with which the block collapsed after a fire.
“It looked like a scene from September 11,” said Talhah al-Mazi, 40, referring to the 2001 attacks in the United States.
“I saw people rushing out, crying and screaming for help,” he told AFP, adding that the cave-in happened just as pilgrims were finishing midday prayers in the square outside.
An AFP correspondent saw medics pulling out one bloodied survivor with a respirator over his face while a huge yellow crane lifted off slabs of concrete threatening to entomb other people.
Anguished survivors pleaded with the emergency services to rescue missing loved ones trapped beneath the hostel, which toppled like a house of cards.
“My two brothers are inside,” Tunisian pilgrim Aiysha bin Jaber, 66, begged the security personnel pushing her back from the tight cordon set up around the collapsed building.
Jalal Abdelrahim, a Bangladeshi porter at the neighbouring Al-Zaydi hotel, said six of his Bengali friends who worked in shops at the bottom of the collapsed building were still missing.
French pilgrim Abderrahmane Ghoul said a firefighting helicopter was already tackling the initial blaze when the tower collapsed.
The tragedy came despite a massive deployment of security and civil defence personnel in a bid to prevent any repetitions of the deadly stampedes and structural failures that have marred previous pilgrimages.
Stampedes killed 251 people in 2003 and 1,426 in 1990.
Surveyors were checking the structural safety of adjacent buildings and had already ordered two evacuated, Zamzami said.
He described the tragedy as “a small incident and not a disaster,” insisting it was “Allah’s will and this might happen any time”.
There was no immediate word on what might have started the fire.
In previous years, camp fires have sparked infernos in pilgrim encampments but the kingdom has also been battling deadly unrest blamed on Al-Qaeda sympathisers since 2003.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and Muslims are required to make it at least once in their lifetime if they have the means to do so.