Saudi rescue teams hunted for survivors yesterday in the ruins of an aging hostel in the holy city of Mecca which collapsed on Thursday, killing at least 53 pilgrims.
Earthmovers and heavy lifting equipment roared through the night after the latest tragedy to hit the annual hajj to Mecca, while 53 pilgrims were officially confirmed dead with many others wounded.
Interior ministry spokesman General Mansul al-Turki said on Thursday that the rubble of the hostel in a crowded street near the Great Mosque was being removed "very carefully" in the hope of finding entombed survivors.
The spokesman gave no breakdown of the nationalities of the dead, but survivors said most pilgrims staying in the hostel came from India, Libya, Pakistan or the United Arab Emirates.
The English-language Arab News said yesterday that Saudi authorities confirmed that three of the dead were Emiratis.
Emergency teams armed with sound-detecting gear have been working frantically since Thursday to try to locate survivors amid the rubble of the Luluat Al-Kheir (Pearl of Grace) hostel, which an official charged was overcrowded.
"Through our inspection of the site... there was a clear indication that the building was overloaded," said regional civil defence director General Adel Zamzami.
Turki also cast doubt on the soundness of the building structure, claiming that "some additions might have been made illegally."
On Thursday, witnesses spoke of their horror at the speed with which the block collapsed after a fire.
"It looked like a scene from September 11," said Talhah al-Mazi, 40.
"I saw people rushing out, crying and screaming for help," he told reporters, adding that the cave-in happened just as pilgrims were finishing midday prayers in the square outside.
Medics pulled out one bloodied survivor with a respirator over his face while a huge yellow crane lifted off slabs of concrete threatening to entomb other people.
Anguished survivors pleaded with the emergency services to rescue missing loved ones trapped beneath the hostel, which toppled like a house of cards.
"My two brothers are inside," Tunisian pilgrim Aiysha bin Jaber, 66, begged the security personnel pushing her back from the tight cordon set up around the collapsed building.
Jalal Abdelrahim, a Bangladeshi porter at the neighbouring al-Zaydi hotel, said six of his Bengali friends who worked in shops at the bottom of the collapsed building were still missing.
French pilgrim Abderrahmane Ghoul said a firefighting helicopter was already tackling the initial blaze when the tower collapsed.
The tragedy came despite a massive deployment of security and civil defence personnel in a bid to prevent any repetitions of the deadly stampedes and structural failures that have marred previous pilgrimages.
Stampedes killed 251 people in 2003 and 1,426 in 1990.
Surveyors were checking the structural safety of adjacent buildings, Zamzami said.
He described the tragedy as "a small incident and not a disaster," insisting it was "Allah's will and this might happen any time."