"The first stage of the projected overhaul of Jamarat bridge in Mina began on Saturday and will be completed and ready for next year's hajj," Reuters reported on Sunday, January 15, quoting Osama Al-Bar, who heads a government center helping organize hajj. "Jamarat bridge has become the most sensitive area in hajj." Saudi authorities had already said the Jamarat Bridge would be replaced with an elaborate system of entrances and exits, including a subway, which will cost 4.2 billion riyals ($1.12 billion).
The first stage of the three-year project, which will be ready for the next hajj, involves a two-storey bridge and an underground emergency exit for pilgrims and ambulances. Al-Bar said the development of the is 32-years-old Jamarat Bridge would allow the kingdom to host more than the 2.5 million pilgrims it currently allows. Some 363 Muslim pilgrims were crushed to death in a deadly hajj stampede on Thursday, January 15, while performing the symbolic stoning of the devil at the climax of hajj.
Saudi authorities blamed the stampede on unruly pilgrims from outside officially-sanctioned operators. But some witnesses said police triggered the chaos by suddenly blocking the entrance to the bridge. Other witnesses reported panic among pilgrims about when they should perform the last rite of hajj.
The Jamarat Bridge will be widened by 20 meters to allow the devil-stoning for 250,000 Muslims pilgrims per hour, Al-Bar said. "The new Jamarat bridge will be equipped with a system allowing automated system to remove stones from the basins," he told the London-based Saudi-owned daily Asharq Alawsat.
"It will also include an automated cleaning system as well as an advanced emergency system." Al-Bar said that a six-way underground tunnel would be established north of the Jamarat Bridge area to ease crowdedness. The project will also include planes' landing spots, emergency exits and pedestrian tunnels.
There have been many deadly hajj stampedes in the past. A total of 251 Muslim pilgrims were trampled to death in the 2004 hajj as people panicked during the devil-stoning rite. In 2003, 14 pilgrims, including six women, were killed in a stampede during the first day of the stoning ritual, and 35 died in 2001, while in 1998 the hajj saw 118 killed and more than 180 hurt in Mina.
The deadliest toll was in 1990 when 1,426 pilgrims were trampled or asphyxiated to death in a stampede in a tunnel, also in Mina. Muslim pilgrims hurl seven pebbles from behind a fence or from the overhead bridge every day for three days at each of the three 18-meter (58-foot) high concrete pillars symbolizing the devil. Satan appeared on the same site to Prophet Abraham, son Ismael and wife Hagar, who each threw seven stones at the devil.
In 2004, an Egyptian scholar put forward a couple of creative ideas to alleviate the too much crowding in hajj season, suggesting to make some of the rituals automated.