Death In The Holy City

It was Islam's most important holiday, the Feast of Sacrifice. Outside Mecca, many of the 2 million pilgrims who had completed the monthlong hajj were rushing to perform a final ritual, along a route that passes through an 1,800-foot-long tunnel. Then seven pilgrims fell from an overhead walkway at the tunnel entrance. In the confusion, 50,000 people jammed into a space designed for 1,000, and a power failure shut off the tunnel's air conditioning, witnesses said. "I was pushed and fell over about 20 corpses," a weeping Lebanese pilgrim said later. "Others were still pushing and walking on top of me." The toll: 1,426 pilgrims dead.

It was the worst disaster to strike Mecca in modern times. But violent death has attended three out of the last four pilgrimages. That has deeply embarrassed Saudi King Fahd, whose titles include "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques." The latest deaths, he said, were "God's will ... Had they not died there they would have died elsewhere and at the same predestined moment." The Saudis have spent $15 billion since the mid-'80s on facilities for pilgrims. But Iran, long angered by the Saudi royal family's U.S. ties, quickly renewed its call for a Pan-Islamic body to administer the holy sites. As relatives searched for the missing, the dead were quickly buried in unmarked graves.