Crowd panic could be disastrous

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Crowd panic could be disastrous
Ambulances with pilgrims who were injured in a stampede arrive at an emergency hospital in Mina.

New York - A small incident in a huge crowd could set a stage for lethal turbulence, say experts.


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Published: Sat 26 Sep 2015, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Sat 26 Sep 2015, 9:52 AM

When too many people are squeezed into too small a space, the situation can turn dangerous very quickly, experts say. And that, they say, may be key to understanding the deaths of more than 700 pilgrims in Mina, just outside the holy city of Makkah.
"It's largely a physical phenomenon, not a psychological one," says Dirk Helbing, a professor of computational social science at ETH Zurich, who has studied crowds and disasters.
When the density is too high, movements of a body "transfers forces to other bodies. These forces can add up and create uncontrollable movements in the crowd," he said on Thursday.
"As a result ... people might fall on the ground and might be trampled by others" or die of suffocation as others fall on top of them, he said.
And it can happen fast. Even a small incident like two people starting a fight or trying to walk against the crowd can quickly snarl a free-flowing crowd in large-scale congestion, he said. As more and more people pour in, the density builds up, setting the stage for lethal turbulence.
So "a small problem turns into a big problem that is not controllable anymore," Helbing said. A large crowd can "get out of control very quickly."
Even for those who stay on their feet, the pressure of the surrounding bodies builds up "and people can't breathe," said Keith Still, a professor of crowd science at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. "People don't die because they panic. They panic because they are dying."
Still, who has worked on Haj crowd management with security officials in the past but had no direct knowledge of this year's situation, said Thursday's disaster in Saudi Arabia appeared to result from too many people jammed into a space too small to hold them.
"Every system has a finite limit, the number of people who can go through it," Still said. "When you get above that number, the risks increase exponentially."
At the Haj, he said, "it just looks like the system has gone beyond its safe capacity." The Saudi Interior Ministry has said the crush appeared to result from two waves of pilgrims meeting at an intersection. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, has pledged a speedy investigation to improve crowd management.
One effective strategy for crowd safety, Still said, is a hold-and-release approach. People are stopped temporarily from following a route and then let go in pulses. "That creates space," Still said.
Helbing said the Haj is "one of the most difficult mass events to organize," in part because some pilgrims aren't registered for the event and so don't adhere to assigned camps or official schedules, and the hajj attracts people of many origins and languages.
The last such Haj incident was nine years ago near the same site.
"When such an event has been safe for a number of years, that's not a reason to relax and take things easy," he said.
"There is always a kind of a critical threshold. If your system happens to get beyond that threshold, then things get uncontrollable."
Interior ministry spokesman General Mansur Al Turki said the stampede was caused when "a large number of pilgrims were in motion at the same time" at an intersection of two streets in Mina."The great heat and fatigue of the pilgrims contributed to the large number of victims," he said.
Meanwhile, one minister blamed the pilgrims for the tragedy, but they disagreed.
"There was crowding.
"The police had closed all entrances and exits to the pilgrims' camp, leaving only one," said Ahmed Abu Bakr, a 45-year-old Libyan who escaped the stampede with his mother.
"I saw dead bodies in front of me and injuries and suffocation. We removed the victims with the police," he said.
He added that police at the scene appeared inexperienced.
"They don't even know the roads and the places around here," he said as others nodded in agreement.
In a statement posted on the ministry's website, the minister, Khalid Al Falih, said an investigation would be conducted rapidly into the worst disaster to strike the Haj for 25 years. At least 863 others were injured.
"The investigations into the incident of the stampede that took place today in Mina, which was perhaps because some pilgrims moved without following instructions by the relevant authorities, will be fast and will be announced as has happened in other incidents," the statement said.
Pilgrims in Mina stay in a complex of white fireproof tents big enough to hold more than two million people, and the interior ministry said it deployed 100,000 police to secure the Haj, maintain safety and manage traffic and crowds.
One outspoken critic of redevelopment at the holy sites said despite the large numbers, police were not properly trained and lacked the language skills for communicating with foreign pilgrims, who make up the majority of those on the Haj.
"They don't have a clue how to engage with these people," said Irfan Al Alawi, co-founder of the Makkah-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.
"There's no crowd control," Alawi said.
Another witness, 39-year-old Egyptian Mohammed Hasan, voiced worries that a similar incident "could happen again".
"You just find soldiers gathered in one place doing nothing," he said. - AP, AFP

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