HIGH winds have been blamed for causing a large crane to topple and crash into the Grand Mosque in the Saudi city of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, killing at least 107 people ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
Suleiman bin Abdullah al-Amro, the head of Saudi Arabia’s civil defence directorate, told broadcaster Al Arabiya that unusually powerful winds also tore down trees and signs as a storm whipped through the area on Friday afternoon.
He denied reports that lightning brought down the red and white crane, or that some of those who were killed had died in a stampede.
Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted his sympathies to those affected from his Number 10 office account on Friday: “My thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost loved ones at Mecca today.”
The Foreign Office said it was working with the nation’s authorities as they attempt to identify the victims, whose nationalities remain unknown.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “I’m shocked and saddened to hear of the accident in Mecca involving a large number of fatalities amongst those attending the Hajj. My thoughts are with the families of those affected.”
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are liaising closely with the Saudi authorities following the crane collapse at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and stand ready to provide support to anyone affected.”
Saudi officials said 238 people were injured in the disaster at the mosque, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba and is ringed by several cranes engaged in ongoing construction work to expand the site.
A photograph released by the directorate showed police and workers in hard hats inspecting a pile of collapsed concrete slabs inside part of the sprawling, ornately decorated mosque.
Another picture showed the base of the toppled crane tilted upwards at a sharp angle.
Images aired on Saudi state television showed the crane’s metal boom had smashed through what appeared to be the roof of the mosque.
Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Mansouri, the spokesman for the presidency of the Mecca and Medina mosque affairs, said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency that the crane struck a circular area around the Kaaba and a nearby walkway.
Al-Jazeera TV broadcast footage from inside the mosque compound said to be from the aftermath of the accident, showing the floor strewn with rubble and what appeared to be pools of blood.
Another video, released on Twitter, 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.
It was not immediately clear which firm owned the crane that collapsed.
The mosque is Islam’s holiest site. Muslims face it in daily prayers and it forms the 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 22 September. During the week of the Hajj, Muslims converge on Mecca to perform a series of rituals, including the circling of the Kaaba, praying and holding vigil at Mount Arafat, and perform the symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles at the three pillars in Mina.
On Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, is the location where Islam’s Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon some 1,400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite.
While following a route that the prophet once walked, the rites are believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.
The millions of pilgrims who visit Mecca each year pose a considerable security and logistical challenge for the Saudi government.
In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims died in a stampede at the desert plain of Mina, near Mecca. A crush of pilgrims that took place two years earlier left 244 dead.
The worst Hajj-related tragedy was in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.