Death toll rises to 168 in Indian stampede

False rumor of bomb cited; 425 injured

Onlookers gathered yesterday after a stampede at the Chamunda Devi temple inside the 15th century Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur, India. ''Someone slipped,'' Home Minister G.C. Kataria said. ''Then people just kept falling over one another.'' Onlookers gathered yesterday after a stampede at the Chamunda Devi temple inside the 15th century Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur, India. ''Someone slipped,'' Home Minister G.C. Kataria said. ''Then people just kept falling over one another.'' (Associated Press)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post / October 1, 2008
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NEW DELHI - At least 168 people were trampled to death and more than 425 were injured in a massive stampede at a Hindu temple yesterday in Jodhpur city, officials said, the third such disaster in India in three months.

With no crowd control, more than 12,000 people had gathered at dawn to celebrate Navratra, a nine-day Hindu festival to honor the Mother Goddess, Jodhpur Police Superintendent Malini Agarwal told reporters. Witnesses said the early morning stampede began as false rumors of a bomb spread among the crowd.

"Everyone was yelling, 'there's a bomb, there's a bomb,' then I heard horrible screaming. It was the sound of total panic," said Vikki Koshi, who manages Yogi's Guest House very close to the temple.

The temple's floor had become slippery when devotees in a male-only line broke hundreds of coconuts for offerings, officials said. "Someone slipped," Home Minister G.C. Kataria told reporters. "Then people just kept falling over one another." Most of the dead were males.

Also contributing to the pandemonium was a power failure and the collapse of a wall on the narrow 1 -mile path leading to the temple, officials said. Other pilgrims had crammed the path, leaving little room for those fleeing to escape.

Television images of the scene afterward showed chaotic crowds hoisting limp bodies through the air. Women slapped the faces of husbands, trying to revive them, and wept over their bodies as paramedics tried to push through the crowds.

One child sat on the ground next to the body of a woman, rubbing her forehead and crying "Mother, Mother."

The stampede occurred in the Chamunda Devi temple. It is nestled in the narrow passageways of the historic 15th-century Mehrangarh fort, a sprawling hilltop monument that overlooks the town.

The fort is one of Jodhpur's biggest tourist attractions with its huge walls, ornate interiors and views overlooking Jodhpur. The town is about 180 miles southwest of the Rajasthan state capital of Jaipur.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje called for an inquiry into what could be done to prevent similar events. Local business leaders and emergency rescue specialists said India has a growing need for better planning at major religious festivals and stricter crowd control.

"People die simply because they are being suffocated by the crowds," said Mahesh C. Misra, a trauma surgeon with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, who is trying to train people across the country in disaster management. "I think everyone realizes that we all want to do more to prevent these tragedies."

Koshi also saw a need for action: "We can save lives if we just learn how to control these events. Maybe by only letting a certain number visit at a time."

Across major cities in India, nerves have been rattled by a series of bomb blasts in busy markets since May.

The latest attack occurred late Monday night in the western city of Malegaon, killing six people and wounding 45. On Saturday, a bomb exploded in a New Delhi market, killing two people and wounding at least 22.

Stampedes have long been a frequent occurrence during festival periods at Hindu temples in India, where colossal crowds - sometimes up to 100,000 - squeeze into maze-like areas.

One hundred forty-five people, 50 of them children, died in a similar crush at the Naina Devi shrine in Himachal Pradesh this year. In July, six devotees were killed and 12 were injured in a stampede during a pilgrimage in the eastern Indian state of Orissa.

Monday's bombing in Malegaon occurred in a market packed with Muslim shoppers. An 8-year-old girl was among the people killed.

Separately yesterday, a small bomb exploded at a market in Modasa in Gujarat state packed with Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast, killing one person and wounding 15, police said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks.

In Malegaon, police initially said the blast was caused by a gas cylinder, but yesterday police officer S. Rajvanshi said it was a bomb placed on a motorcycle outside a restaurant.

He said police were later forced to fire in the air to disperse an angry crowd that surrounded a police station demanding answers from officers.

Two years ago, 31 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded in an attack on a mosque in Malegaon. Nearly 75 percent of Malegaon's 500,000 residents are Muslims. Malegaon has long been the scene of violence between Hindus and Muslims. In July, the Indian Mujahideen group claimed responsibility for a series of blasts that killed at least 45 people in Gujarat. Monday's attack came hours after police in Lucknow arrested an alleged member of the Indian Mujahideen in connection with some of the recent bombings, police spokesman Suren Shrivastava said.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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