RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — The head of Saudi Arabia’s civil defense directorate says high winds caused a massive crane to topple over and smash into Mecca’s Grand Mosque, killing at least 107 people ahead of the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
Director-General Suleiman bin Abdullah al-Amro told satellite broadcaster Al-Arabiya on Saturday that unusually powerful winds in the area also tore down trees and signs as a storm whipped through the area.
He denied reports that lightning brought down the red-and-white crane or that some of those killed died in a stampede.
The civil defense directorate says 238 people were injured in the accident late Friday afternoon at the mosque, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba and is ringed by several cranes engaged in ongoing construction work to expand the site.
This year’s hajj pilgrimage will go ahead despite the crane collapse, a Saudi official said Saturday.
“It definitely will not affect the hajj this season and the affected part will probably be fixed in a few days,” said the official, who declined to be named. “Hajj will go on, for sure.”
Images posted by social media users in the aftermath of the incident showed a grisly scene, with police and onlookers attending to numerous bodies lying amid pools of blood on the polished mosque floors.
American Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his condolences and said the US stands with Saudi Arabia and “all Muslims around the world in the aftermath of this dreadful incident at one of Islam’s holiest sites.”
The Grand Mosque and the Kaaba draw Muslims of all types from around the world throughout the year, though numbers increase significantly in the run-up to the hajj. The mosque is Islam’s holiest site to which Muslims face in daily prayers and a central site among the hajj rituals.
Performing the pilgrimage once during one’s lifetime is a duty for all able-bodied adult Muslims. This year’s pilgrimage is expected to start around Sept. 22.
Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Mansouri, the spokesman for the presidency of the Mecca and Medina mosque affairs, said the crane, which was being used in construction work at the mosque, struck a circular area around the Kaaba and a nearby walkway.
Pan-satellite Al-Jazeera Television broadcast footage from inside the mosque compound said to be from the aftermath of the accident, showing the floor strewn with rubble and what appear to be pools of blood.
Another video, on a Twitter posting, captured the apparent moment of the red-and-white crane’s collapse during a heavy rainstorm, with a loud boom, screams and confusion.
The governor of the Mecca region, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, quickly called for the formation of a committee to investigate the cause of the accident. He directed all appropriate authorities to provide support for all of those injured, according to a statement from Mecca principality public affairs head Sultan al-Dosari that was carried on SPA.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.