MINA, Saudi Arabia - At least 244 people were trampled to death and hundreds more hurt under the crush of worshippers in one of the deadliest disasters during the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.
Hajj has been plagued by disaster in recent years. This year's stampede occurred during the stoning of the devil, an emotional and notoriously perilous hajj ritual. Pilgrims frantically throw rocks, shout insults or hurl their shoes at three stone pillars - acts that are supposed to demonstrate their deep disdain for Satan. Saudi officials came out Monday with a list of regulations for next year's event that will hopefully end this recent chain of disasters:
1) New crowd control measures include encouraging Muslims to stay in their home countries that weekend and organize events that mirror the spirit of the Hajj. Instead of stoning to death adulteress women pell mell throughout the year, save them all up for that particular weekend to attract the really large crowds.
2) Many of the injured this year had head injuries due to flying pebbles, stones, bricks, shoes, and other objects that missed their mark at the pillars. Concerned Saudi officials yesterday announced that for next year's event they have contracted with the Wiffle Ball Company of Shelton, Connecticut to produce 10 million balls. Company spokesman Larry Parks said: "It was a tough sale at first, but once we agreed to put the Israeli Prime Minister's face on them, it was a done deal."
3) Because Mina is for the majority of the year a small, peaceful village sitting in a quaint valley near the city of Mecca, Saudi officials will set quotas next year, strictly enforcing the two million visitors rule for that weekend. Any additional pilgrims attempting to enter the town will be turned away.
4) With regard to the pebbles, witnesses said they were being thrown every which way except towards the pillars. One Westerner in the crowd said it was because: "they throw like girls." Saudi officials, therefore, are planning educational programs throughout the year to train soccer-oriented adherents in proper tossing methods.
5) As part of the Hajj, the sacrifice of an animal such as a sheep, camel, goat, or cow takes place. Saudi medical staff at this year's event felt a particularly virulent strain of mad camel disease was making the rounds- which may have set off a large section of the pilgrims into a frenzy, thus contributing to the stampede.
6) The majority of the deaths broke out on one of two ramps leading to the 50-foot stone pillars. Tens of thousands of people were on the uppermost ramp. This was the scene of similar deadly incidents in 1998, 2001, and 2003. Next year, security forces will be in place to rush the crowds as quickly across the ramps as possible in order to avoid any further incidents.
7) To further protect the pilgrims, Indonesian visitors will be the first ones to test out the planned safety measures on the ramps. Saudi Hajj Minister Iyad Madani explains: "Not being Arabs, their Muslim credentials have always been suspect. This will be a way for them to test their true faith and trust in Allah."
8) And, finally, to remind all future visitors that this year's theme, like that of previous years, has been: Caution isn't stronger than fate. If you impudently have thoughts of finishing a hajj by resting comfortably that night in your hotel room, thinking you have successfully completed your Islamic duties for the day, without considering for a moment that Allah may have it planned for you to be crushed between two hefty pilgrims on the upper ramp- then you just don't get it.