102 pilgrims killed in stampede at Indian festival44 others injured returning from Hindu festival
By Anna Mathews
The Associated Press
KOCHI, India — A stampede of pilgrims returning from one of India's most popular Hindu festivals killed at least 102 people and injured 44 others, officials said Saturday.
The stampede was set off Friday night when a group of pilgrims in a jeep drove into a crowd of worshippers walking along a narrow forest path as they returned from offering prayers at the hilltop Sabarimala shrine in the state of Kerala in southern India, said local police official Sanjay Kumar.
All the injured were hospitalized, some in serious condition, Kumar told The Associated Press.
"We have recovered 102 bodies. The rescue work is almost over," he said.
The area was flooded with pilgrims and the stampede occurred nearly 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of the temple site, Kumar said.
The annual two-month festival attracts millions of worshippers to the remote temple to the Hindu deity Ayyappan. The ceremony Friday marked the end of the festival, and an estimated 150,000 devotees were thought to have taken the narrow path out of the densely forested hills where the stampede took place, said Thomas Isaac, the state finance minister.
Nearly 2,000 police officers were deployed near the shrine to prevent such an accident from happening.
At the small state-run hospital in the nearby town of Kumali, scores of volunteers helped distraught family members identify the dead. The bodies were wrapped in white shrouds and placed in wooden coffins before being handed over to the relatives.
Isaac said 72 bodies had been identified by late Saturday.
"Our priority now is to identify the rest of the bodies and hand them over to the families of the victims," he said.
Rescue workers found it difficult to reach the stampede site due to the dense tropical forests on the hills surrounding the vast Sabarimala temple complex, Isaac said.
Manoj Kutty, 33, was returning from Sabarimala after participating in a lamp lighting ceremony and evening prayers when the stampede occurred.
"People were rushing downhill, and we could see people fall down and others fall over them. It all happened in seconds," Kutty said.
The hillside was strewn with clothes, bags and slippers abandoned by pilgrims as they fled down the hill when the stampede began.
Roads leading to the stampede site were cordoned and groups of pilgrims stood in a daze waiting for buses to ferry them away.
A small stampede at Sabarimala last week killed one pilgrim, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Deadly stampedes are relatively common at temples in India, where large crowds gather in tiny areas with no safety measures or crowd control.
In March, 63 people were killed when poor villagers scrambled for free food and clothing being given away at a ceremony at a temple in northern Uttar Pradesh state. In 2008, more than 145 people died in a stampede at a remote Hindu temple at the foothills of the Himalayas.
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