The Saudi Arabia government have come under pressure to improve safety at Mecca after the fatal hajj crowd tragedy of 2015. Many people have taken to blame the officials in charge and the press have published many articles since this tragic loss of life purporting to understand how and why this happened.
Emotive language such as “stampede” and “crush” have been used which obviously will be upsetting for anyone close to this event either religiously or from being related to a person who suffered there amongst the crowds.
Until you have been in a crowd of people and have felt the pressure of everyone around you so tight that you cannot move independently of the crowd, will you appreciate the loss of control and feelings of helplessness. When overcrowding occurs all feelings of “self” disappears and the crowd becomes one (in the sense that you lose the ability to move independently of others and not that you forget who you are!). The crowd movement becomes influenced by flow or movement of the mass from where it has come to where it is going. As long as the movement of the crowd is unimpeded the pressure can be alleviated and the crowd will move progressively. This can be illustrated by the below diagram courtesy of Keith Still who is a professor of Crowd Science at Manchester University from whom I have had the pleasure to attend lectures in Crowd Dynamics.
Anything above 5 people per square metre and the crowd density becomes dangerous. These levels are often experienced during pilgrimages to the Hajj. It is not unusual to see 7-8 people per square metre around the Hajj Shrine that the below image shows.
At densities such as these the crowd becomes fluid and behaves like a sea of people. Imagine a sudden pressure of movement through this sea like a wave rippling along its path. Imagine also when this wave crashes up against an immovable point such as a blocked passage, wall or barrier? What happens?
Think of a wave splashing up against a wall and the water rebounding back.
This is what happens in a overcrowded space rather like a shock wave. As the wave turns back on itself, into an already overcrowded space a progressive crowd collapse begins. Can you see how the press and the commentators who have not considered such crowd behaviour and dynamics could describe what happened as a “Stampede” and “Crush”? The below illustration shows the critical densities and how overcrowding can lead to fatal occurence.
Those that are caught up in the collapse of a crowd are at risk of serious injury or fatality. Even if you can stay upright another danger is the mounting pressure exerted from the mass of bodies moving into a confined space where the exit or route is blocked. There comes a point where you will no longer be able to inflate your lungs. You will die from compressive asphyxiation.
It is my assertion that tragedies such as these are“preventable, predictable and avoidable” (Keith Still 2004).
Since 2004 the whole complex has been redesigned extensively raising the flow rate from 200,000 per hour to somewhere around 600,000. This will increase the numbers approaching potential bottle necks and congestion points.
Is the issue one of design or one of crowd management? How are the various safety communities communicating with each other to ensure that decisions to close, divert or re route even if only temporarily will not have a disastrous impact elsewhere?
The below youtube link is interesting to watch as it graphically shows how a crowd can surge and move when the space they are in becomes overcrowded.
Have a look at this evacuation simulation where the crowds has a good free flow of egress.
What would happen if these routes became blocked? How can the safety management teams ensure the continued flow of people to ensure their safe exit?
The solution is not simple or easily defined. Good management and communication is vital between the safety community at all times to co-ordinate operations and to ensure effective protocols are in place to avoid discord amongst those carrying out the safe stewarding and marshalling of the crowds and associated traffic routes around the site.
Here is a time line of over the last 18 years of pilgrimage.
1987: More than 400 pilgrims died as a result of demonstrations.
1990: 1,400 pilgrims killed during a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel linking Mecca with Mount Arafat. The stampede is thought to have been caused by the great heat when a ventilation system in the tunnel broke down.
1994: 270 pilgrims crushed to death.
1997: 350 pilgrims killed when in a fire started by a gas cooker swept through the tents at Mina.
1998: 180 pilgrims crushed to death.
2001: 35 pilgrims crushed to death at Arafat.
2004: Some 250 pilgrims died in a stampede during the “stoning of the devil” ritual.
2006: At least 362 pilgrims died in a stampede during the “stoning of the devil” ritual; a hostel collapsed in Mecca, killing at least 76 people.
If Saudi Arabia wants to prevent future incidents like these, it will have to find a solution of some kind. The Saudi Government have since 1992 invested over £200 billion on infrastructure. Crowd safety has been hugely enhanced at the Hajj since 2006 and a more scientific approach to risk assessment has developed. However, I strongly believe that their continued vigilance and observance of sound and effective Crowd Management operations and training is vital to the continued safety and security of pilgrims. Otherwise this will unfortunately likely not be the last time tragedy strikes.
Steve Laws is Director for Safe and Trained and has 30 years experience as a Police officer.
Steve has level 4 and level 5 qualifications in Crowd Safety Management and is currently studying for his BA in Crowd Safety Management.
Please get in touch:
Tel: +44 (0)1604 210506
Mobile: +44 (0)7539012731