Siraj Wahab & Maha Akeel, Arab News
Publication Date: 
Sat, 2006-01-07 03:00

MAKKAH/JEDDAH, 7 January 2006 — As the death toll in Thursday’s building collapse in Makkah climbed to 76, Interior Minister and Chairman of the Supreme Haj Committee Prince Naif called an emergency meeting of the committee today to discuss the cause of the tragedy and findings of the investigation.

Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, spokesman of the Interior Ministry, said the number of people who died in the accident had risen to 76 — 48 men and 28 women. He put the number of the injured at 62. According to a Health Ministry official, 59 people have been rescued from the rubble.

The Makkah Municipality yesterday washed its hands of the tragedy, claiming the building had no clearance from any of its officials. “We were nowhere in the picture in this particular case,” said a municipal official to Arab News on condition of anonymity. “The building was classified as a hotel and giving permissions for all hotels whether in the holy city or in the rest of the Kingdom is the responsibility of the Commerce Ministry. We are responsible only for buildings that are classified as residential accommodation. Hotels are classified as commercial establishments.”

The same source in the municipality told Arab News that a strict regime of building standards and licensing is in place.

“Our building inspectors regularly conduct inspections of pilgrim accommodation to ensure that highest standards of safety are maintained and that there is no overcrowding,” a source said. “But this building was not our responsibility... it is a hotel,” he said.

Civil Defense Capt. Ziad Al-Zaidi also said: “The building was categorized as a hotel by the Ministry of Commerce.”

This means that it was not among the buildings inspected by the pilgrims’ housing committee, which is responsible for checking the safety and health conditions of the residential buildings rented out to pilgrims and issuing them permits.

A preliminary investigation carried out Thursday night revealed that the owner of the building, which had a 65-person capacity, had made additions to its structure illegally. “It was this additional structure that caved in leading to the complete collapse of the building,” said a planning engineer who had worked in the area to install mobile telecommunication towers for local telecom companies.

“This particular building was always vulnerable,” he recalled. “Amidst all the solid, concrete high rise buildings in that particular area this building known as Luluat Al-Kheir was like, to give you an example, the Leaning Tower of Pisa... It was a death trap.”

A government official, who did not want to be identified, also gave a similar version to the Al-Ekhbariya television station. “The building was 40 years old and its foundations were cracked and weak,” he told the Arabic TV news station. However, the hotel operator, Habib Turkistani, insisted that the structure was sound. “The building was in good shape, and what happened was a matter of fate and divine decree,” Turkistani told The Associated Press.

Health Ministry spokesman Dr. Khalid Mirghalani said of the 59 people rescued, 24 were still in hospitals with various degrees of injuries. “The Ministry of Health will facilitate the completion of Haj for the 26 who are still in the hospitals by taking them in ambulances,” he told Arab News.

The Civil Defense, Red Crescent Society and Ministry of Health personnel continued their rescue efforts all through Thursday night and yesterday.

“Two women were brought out alive in the afternoon, which encouraged the rescue teams to continue their efforts carefully and diligently,” said a source with the Makkah health department.

Rescue and recovery efforts ended at 6 p.m., according to the Civil Defense.

3 Indians Among Dead

There was still no official word on the nationalities of the victims. However, Indian Consul General Ausaf Sayeed said there were three Indian prilgrims among the dead. They have been identified as 70-year-old Muhammad Rajab Rather from Budgam district in Jammu and Kashmir, 47-year-old Ghulam Qadir Mir from Anantnag district in Jammu and Kashmir and 62-year-old Muhammad Mustafa Khairuddin from Calcutta, West Bengal. "Three other pilgrims are reported missing," Sayeed said. "Efforts are on to find out their whereabouts."

“Muhammad Rajab Rather, along with his companion Muhammad Maqbool Dar, was in the Gazza area when the building came down. Maqbool Dar, like everybody else, rushed back toward the Grand Mosque. He assumed that Rajab was following him. When he reached the mosque he realized that Rajab was missing. He later identified Rajab’s body in the Shisha government hospital,” Sayeed said.

Muhammad Rajab’s Haj cover number was given as JK1086-6. Doctors at the hospital said he died “as a result of a heart failure and hemorrhage due to multiple injuries.”

Tunisia’s Religious Affairs Ministry reported four Tunisians — two women and two men — died in the collapse and six others were hospitalized. Pakistan’s Consul General Masood Akhtar said there were no Pakistani victims in the tragedy.

“Alhamdullilah none of the victims was Pakistani,” he said. “But any death is bad news and Pakistanis are in prayers for the victims and their near and dear ones.”

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