Mecca - A South African man who escaped with his life after a crane crashed into Mecca’s Grand Mosque has spoken about how his fellow pilgrims died after they were hit by steel sheets just after prayers on Friday afternoon.
Reliving the trauma, Ikraam Karodia told City Press that he and five other South Africans watched in horror from the bottom level of the mosque as the steel sheets started flying around during a severe sandstorm.
One of the steel sheets landed on two people and another hit a pillar before the crane came crashing down, leaving, by late on Saturday, 107 people dead and 238 injured.
Karodia was lucky to have escaped with his life – he was just 20m away from where the crane landed.
“Most people started running; others were in shock and some even carried on with the Tawaf [walking around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site],” he said.
“I tried running to the closest stairs to get out, but most of the stairs were blocked for construction. They opened some. While running, I saw people lying on the floor and blood everywhere. I was running through the blood and the injured nursing wounds on the floor.”
Karodia said the area was packed as people pushed to get to safety. Others, too shocked to move, sat in stunned silence, blocking the way.
“I was about 20m away from the collapsed crane. As soon as I heard the bang, I stopped my Tawaf and tried to get out, but it was too congested. Everyone was going helter-skelter, including emergency personnel. I managed to get to safety on one of the upper levels,” he said.
“The guards were trying to keep everyone inside the mosque. I was stuck in the mosque for 20 to 30 minutes. I never realised how bad it was until I got out.”
Another South African, Amir Hamza Mookadam, told City Press that the skies above Mecca had been clear on Friday, but the weather turned at about 16:30, about 25 minutes before late-afternoon prayers. The sandstorm, hail and heavy rain lasted for just more than an hour.
Despite the trauma he experienced, Karodia decided to return to the mosque for prayer in the early hours of Saturday morning. Most of the debris had been cleared way and the ground floor was open. Only the two levels above were still closed.
Other South African pilgrims were not near the mosque when the crane crashed – they had received a warning to stay in their hotels because of the severe weather.
Mookadam, a travel agent with Yusra Tours, which organises hajj pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, commended Saudi emergency officials for their prompt response. No South Africans, he said, were among the dead or injured.
“I have been going to Mecca for 13 years and can say this was the worst storm I’ve ever experienced,” he said.
Everyone in his group of about 200 pilgrims was accounted for.
Meanwhile, another South African pilgrim, Abdur Rahman Laily, said his group of about 400 pilgrims were all safe.
Laily, who watched from his hotel room balcony as pilgrims scattered and struggled to get away from the disaster, described how his group had to wait for the dust to settle before the full extent of the destruction left by the crane became clear. Forty minutes after tragedy struck, much of the blood, rubble and metal had been cleaned up.
“When I arrived 30 minutes after the crash, the defence authorities were removing the last of the bodies from the cordoned-off area.”
On Saturday, President Jacob Zuma sent his condolences to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his people.
“Our prayers go out to the families and friends of the deceased, and we wish those injured in the accident a speedy recovery,” he said.
In a statement on Saturday afternoon, the presidency said the South African consulate in Jeddah was monitoring the situation and no reports had been received of any South African citizens being affected by the disaster.
Laily said he would continue with his pilgrimage: “We can’t be swayed by fear or anxiety.”
By late Saturday afternoon, among those confirmed dead were citizens of Egypt, Pakistan and India