VANCOUVER — A Canadian guide in Saudi Arabia with roughly 400 Canadian pilgrims said there was likely little more that could have been done to prevent the deaths of 717 people in a stampede near a Muslim holy site.
Fawad Kalsi, the Surrey, B.C.-based managing director of Falcon Travel, has taken part in the hajj eight times and says safety and security for the annual pilgrimage has improved each year.
Story continues below
“I’ve seen this area progress over the last 15-20 years that I’ve been involved [in tours] and they have poured billions of dollars into widening the roads and installing cameras all over… monitoring the traffic flows,” Kalsi told Global News. Falcon Travel has been taking groups of pilgrims to take part in the hajj since 1980.c
READ MORE: ‘It was like a wave’: Stampede at hajj in Saudi Arabia kills more than 700
Saudi Arabia also employed some 100,000 security guards who stand by the dozens on every corner, he added, speaking in a phone interview from Mina.
Mina is located about 5 kilometres from the Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque) in the holy city of Mecca, and is the location of the final site of the five-day pilgrimage that retraces the trials of the prophet Abraham.
“We’ve never actually felt concerned about the safety,” said Kalsi. “It’s a religious and spiritual high.”
But, he thinks it might have been that sense of security that led to the chaos.
WATCH: Amateur video shows hundreds of dead, wounded following stampede in Mina.
Pilgrims sometimes “forego their ‘spidey senses’” and don’t necessarily follow the rules and designated routes when their “in such a spiritual mode.”
READ MORE: Canadian Muslims call for more government intervention after tragedy in Mecca
Human behaviour isn’t something that can always be planned for, especially in a country that deals with tens of millions of pilgrims annually. But the hajj is the busiest time of any year.
Officially, Saudi Arabia estimates more than two million people have made the journey to Mecca this year — a number Kalsi pointed out has actually dropped in recent years due to visa reductions put in place to accommodate for the $20 billion in expansion projects in and around the Grand Mosque.
According to Arab News, there has been a 20 per cent reduction in the number of visas for international pilgrims and 50 per cent cut to the quota for domestic pilgrims from 2013, when as many as 3.65 million people took part in the hajj.
READ MORE: In a big crowd, as at the hajj, danger can come on quickly
“To put it into perspective, it took Vancouver 10 years almost to plan out the Olympics for what was about a million people that were going to visit,” he explained. “So, you have to give the government here credit to be able to manage three to four million people on a yearly basis.”
Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. In Mecca, the holy site all the world’s Muslims pray toward, the annual hajj pilgrimage began Tuesday with over 2 million faithful gathering to call out in Arabic: “Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am.” Mosa'ab Eishamy/AP Photo
Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. In Mecca, the holy site all the world’s Muslims pray toward, the annual hajj pilgrimage began Tuesday with over 2 million faithful gathering to call out in Arabic: “Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am.”
Mosa'ab Eishamy/AP Photo
History of tragedies at the hajj
Twenty-five years ago, 1,426 people died in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel in Mecca, and a 2006 stampede in Mina left more than 360 pilgrims dead. All told, more than 3,600 people have lost their lives during the pilgrimage since 1990.
And just before this year’s pilgrimage, a crane collapse at the Grand Mosque in Mecca killed 107 people and injured 230 others.
READ MORE: Glance at major hajj-related incidents in Saudi Arabia
Kalsi said the hundreds of deaths on Thursday is “a huge loss” but it does amount to a small percentage of the people who take part in the holy event.
“It’s a large loss of life. It hurts us all. But, to be honest, I don’t think you can blame any one particular person or identity for what happened,” he said, adding his prayers to those who lost their loved ones.
Everyone travelling with Falcon Travel was accounted for. Kalsi said it took several hours from when the stampede broke out to determine that everyone was safe and sound.
He explained the groups are staying in the opposite side of the Muzdalifah tent city from where the stampede, involving an estimated 4,000 people, happened.
READ MORE: Muslims in Calgary react to hundreds killed in stampede at hajj in Saudi Arabia
According to The Guardian, the Saudi civil defence said two groups of pilgrims were heading in the direction of the Jamarat Pillars — where pilgrims take part in in a symbolic stoning of the devil by tossing pebbles at the three pillars—when their paths crossed at a junction on a route heading toward the bridge that leads into the pilgrimage site.
In this image released by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims make their way to cast stones at a pillar symbolizing the stoning of Satan in a ritual called “Jamarat,” the last rite of the annual hajj, on the first day of Eid al-Adha, in Mina on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Saudi Press Agency via AP Photo
In this image released by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims make their way to cast stones at a pillar symbolizing the stoning of Satan in a ritual called “Jamarat,” the last rite of the annual hajj, on the first day of Eid al-Adha, in Mina on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015.
Saudi Press Agency via AP Photo
Kalsi said the tragic event won’t affect the rest of his group’s plans for the pilgrimage. Only one of the access points to the four-storey building housing the Jamarat Pillars has been closed.
“You are completing your faith when you come here,” Kelsi said. “For someone that’s coming from a spiritual perspective it’s the biggest moment, the biggest journey of your life.”
Journey of a lifetime
It’s a requirement for all practicing Muslims who have the means and physical ability to make the pilgrimage, the fifth pillar of Islam, at least once in their life.
Some save their entire lives to take part.
Several Canadian companies have taken groups to participate in this year’s pilgrimage, with prices for travel packages from Canada ranging between $8,500 to nearly $15,000.
The Dept. of Foreign Affairs did not confirm whether any Canadians were injured or killed in the stampede.
In a statement, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson said he was “saddened to learn of this tragic loss of life” and offered condolences to the those who may have had family or friends killed in the stampede.
He also expressed well wishes for those who may be among the 863 people reported to have been injured.
Canadian citizens in Mina, Saudi Arabia requiring emergency consular assistance should contact the Embassy of Canada in Riyadh at +966 (11) 488-2288, or call DFATD’s 24/7 Emergency Watch and Response Centre at +1 613 996 8885. An email can also be sent to [email protected]苏州纹眉.