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Saudi Arabia: Stampede at hajj kills 717 pilgrims

AP, 9/24/15
MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — A horrific stampede killed at least 717 pilgrims and injured hundreds more Thursday on the outskirts of the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the deadliest tragedy to strike the annual hajj pilgrimage in more than two decades.
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At least 863 pilgrims were injured in the crush, said the Saudi civil defense directorate, which provided the death toll. The tragedy struck as Muslims around the world marked the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday.

It was the second major disaster during this year’s hajj season, raising questions about the adequacy of measures put in place by Saudi authorities to ensure the safety of the roughly 2 million Muslims taking part in the pilgrimage. A crane collapse in Mecca nearly two weeks earlier left 111 people dead.

Many of the victims were crushed and trampled to death as they were on their way to perform a symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing pebbles against three stone columns in Mina, a large valley about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Mecca that has been the site of hajj stampedes in past years. The area houses more than 160,000 tents where pilgrims spend the night during the pilgrimage.

Two survivors interviewed by The Associated Press said the disaster began when one wave of pilgrims found themselves heading into a mass of people going in another direction.

“I saw someone trip over someone in a wheelchair and several people tripping over him. People were climbing over one another just to breathe,” said one of the survivors, Abdullah Lotfy, 44, from Egypt. “It was like a wave. You go forward and suddenly you go back.”

Lotfy said that having two flows of pilgrims interacting in this way should never have happened. “There was no preparation. What happened was more than they were ready for,” he said of the Saudi authorities.

Saudi Arabia takes great pride in its role as the caretaker of Islam’s holiest sites and host to millions of pilgrims annually. But the hajj poses an immense logistical and security challenge for the kingdom, given the sheer number of hundreds of thousands of people — from differing linguistic and cultural backgrounds, many of whom have saved for years for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the hajj — intent on following the same set of rituals at about the same time.

The kingdom’s Interior Ministry said later Thursday that the crush appears to have been caused by two waves of pilgrims meeting at an intersection. King Salman ordered the creation of committee to investigate the incident.

The ministry’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, said high temperatures and the fatigue of the pilgrims may also have been factors in the disaster. He said there was no indication that authorities were to blame for the event, adding that “unfortunately, these incidents happen in a moment.”

Another survivor, Ismail Hamba, 58, from Nigeria, recalled falling down and then being trampled over by marching pilgrims. “It was terrible, it was really, really terrible,” he said.

Thursday’s tragedy struck during a morning surge of pilgrims at the intersection of streets 204 and 223 as the faithful were making their way toward a large structure overlooking the columns, according to the civil defense directorate.

Ambulance sirens blared and helicopters hovered overhead as rescue crews rushed the injured to nearby hospitals. More than 220 rescue vehicles and some 4,000 members of the emergency services were deployed soon after the stampede to try to ease the congestion and provide alternative exit routes, according to the directorate.

Amateur video shared on social media showed a horrific scene, with scores of bodies — the men dressed in the simple terry cloth garments worn during hajj — lying amid crushed wheelchairs and water bottles along a sunbaked street.

Survivors assessed the scene from the top of roadside stalls near white tents as rescue workers in orange and yellow vests combed the area.

International media covering the hajj, including The Associated Press journalists in Mina, were restricted from visiting the site of the accident for several hours and from immediately leaving an Information Ministry complex where the press is housed during the final three days of the pilgrimage, per government rules.

Photos released by the directorate on its official Twitter account showed rescue workers helping the wounded onto stretchers and loading them onto ambulances near some of the tents.

Saudi authorities take extensive precautions to ensure the security and the safety of pilgrims during the hajj, which is an obligation for every able-bodied Muslim. The pilgrimage began in earnest Tuesday. There are about 100,000 security forces deployed this year to oversee crowd management and ensure pilgrims’ safety during the five-day pilgrimage.

At Mina specifically, authorities have put measures in place over the years to try to alleviate the pressure posed by masses of pilgrims converging on the site of the stoning ritual.

Officials use surveillance cameras and other equipment to limit the number of people converging on the site, and the Jamarat Bridge has multiple exits to facilitate the flow of people.

But tragedies are not uncommon.

The death toll from Thursday’s crush far exceeded that of a similar incident in 2006, near the same site, when more than 360 pilgrims were killed in a stampede. Another stampede at Mina in 2004 left 244 pilgrims dead and hundreds injured.

The deadliest hajj-related tragedy happened in 1990, when at least 1,426 pilgrims perished in a stampede in an overcrowded pedestrian tunnel leading to holy sites in Mecca.
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In this image posted on the official Twitter account …
In this image posted on the official Twitter account of the directorate of the Saudi Civil Defense a …

The latest tragedy is certain to have touched many different countries as the victims likely included pilgrims of different nationalities.

Sudanese pilgrim Mahmoun Mahmoud, 55, witnessed what he said appeared to be pilgrims from many different countries.

At least 95 Iranian pilgrims perished, according to the official IRNA news agency. The chief of the Iranian hajj organizing agency, Saeed Ohadi, said that “mismanagement by the Saudis” led to the tragedy. Deputy foreign minister, Hossesin Amir Abdollahian, told the official IRNA news agency that his ministry summoned the Saudi envoy to Tehran for an official protest over what he called the “inadequate performance of Saudi authorities” in the incident.

No Egyptian nationals died according to initial reports but Egypt’s hajj delegation executive president, Maj. Gen. Sayed Maher, said 30 Egyptians were injured in the stampede.

The United States expressed its “deepest condolences” for the victims of the “heartbreaking stampede” outside Mecca. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. joins in mourning for “the tragic loss of these faithful pilgrims.”

The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “deeply saddened” to hear of the deaths, his spokesman said in a statement.

In the Pakistani city of Lahore, Sajida Arif, said her father, Haji Arif, died in the stampede. “Before leaving for the hajj, he told me he had a wish to be buried in Mecca,” she said.

Less than two weeks ago, a giant construction crane came crashing down on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the focal point of the hajj. The Sept. 11 accident killed at least 111 people and injured more than 390.

Authorities blamed the crane collapse on high winds during an unusually powerful storm, and faulted the construction giant Saudi Binladin Group, which oversees construction at the mosque, for not following operating procedures.

And last Thursday, more than 1,000 fled a fire in an 11-story Mecca hotel that left two people injured.


Schreck reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

French Minister calls for tighter security controls

21 September 2015

Thierry Braillard, France’s Secretary of State for Sport, has called for security measures inside French stadia to be improved ahead of the Uefa Euro 2016 national team tournament in the country after major crowd trouble disrupted a top-tier Ligue 1 football match yesterday (Sunday).

The Marseille v Lyon game was interrupted for 23 minutes by spectators throwing bottles onto the pitch at the former’s Stade Velodrome home. Marseille and Lyon are both slated to host games during next summer’s tournament.

“It’s unacceptable and I think we need to be firmer on the security checks,” Braillard (pictured) told RTL radio on Monday. “We’re six months away from the Euro, which is a fantastic event, and I’m urging everyone to take lessons from what happened. There are security conditions that need to be respected. You cannot have glass bottles in the stands.”

Marseille president Vincent Labrune said on Sunday that the club would “assume its responsibilities” and added today that safety nets would be put up to protect players on the pitch.

French football league president Frederic Thiriez said that it was time to consider harsher penalties for such incidents, suggesting that fines of as little as €50,000 ($57,000) “looks like very little for this kind of thing.” Thiriez added that points deductions for clubs could be considered in the future.

Seeking answers to attacks on high school officials

By Erik Brady and Jim Halley, USA TODAY Sports September 15, 2015

Call the National Association of Sports Officials and a recorded message tells you to press 2 for membership renewal — and 3 for insurance and assault information.

That sounds more Saturday Night Live than Friday Night Lights, except that the early part of this high school football season has seemed like open season on officials, most notably in San Antonio. That’s where two players launched themselves into the body of an official this month — video of which has been viewed more than 7 million times on YouTube — and where another player on a different team shoved an official eight days later.

“I wouldn’t want to connect those dots and call it a trend,” NASO founder and president Barry Mano told USA TODAY Sports Tuesday. “But it is concerning. What we know is that now, when these things happen, there’s video and everyone can see it.”

Video of the blindside hits in the first incident have been played over and over on national news broadcasts. One player hits umpire Robert Watts from behind, knocking him to the ground, and a second player spears him, diving helmet first into his body.

“Robert Watts is one of our members,” Mano says. “I talked to him the other night. He goes out to work a game, with his wife and eight-week-old daughter at home, to make 70 bucks or something. I don’t know the exact figure, but these guys don’t do this for the money. They do it for love of the game.”

The players, who are minors, were ejected from that game at Marble Falls High and suspended from the team and from John Jay High. The players accused Watts of racial slurs. Mano says he has looked into that and “we have no evidence at all than any racial slurs were used.” The player in the second incident was thrown off the St. Anthony’s team and suspended from school for three days.

“I just cringe,” former Mississippi high school official Tom Rice says of the first incident. “It could have paralyzed the official, given him a concussion, it could have even killed him. It would be my hope that these players would be banned for life from any athletic event.”

Mano says he is surprised at the recent public outcry on the issue of officials’ safety given that a pair of tragic incidents since 2013 did not generate as much national attention. Two soccer officials died, one in an adult league in Michigan and one in a youth league in Utah, after blows to the head from angry athletes.

“Those happened within 17 months of each other,” Mano says. “This thing in Texas outstrips that for all of the attention it is getting. Why, when we had two deaths? I think the reason is clear — video.”

When a Michigan man was sentenced to eight to 15 years for involuntary manslaughter in March, the wife of the official who died raised her left arm holding a red card — symbolic completion of her husband’s attempt to issue one the summer before.

Mano estimates there are 450,000 officials who work athletic events in the USA. He says his organization has 22,000 members. For $103, Mano says, members get insurance as well as Referee magazine. He says when he founded the organization in 1980 that the insurance covered liability. Six or seven years ago, he says, assault coverage was added: “That was never on our radar screen” back in the 1980s.

The insurance covers officials at any athletic event other than pickup games. “We don’t care who sanctions it,” he says. “Rec leagues and youth leagues are where some of the biggest need is.”

Mano says it is important to note that physical assaults on officials are rare. Thomas Brush, an attorney in Charleston, S.C., who has been a high school football referee for 32 years, says the same of South Carolina.

“I may know of one instance in 32 years where a player attacked a referee and the athlete was suspended from high school sports for life,” Brush says. “We don’t have any real issues. The kids are the easy part. I tell referees to just stay away from the parents.”

Craig Anderson, assistant executive director for the Illinois High School Association, oversees the state’s officials. He says poor sportsmanship shown by fans, coaches and players sometimes makes it hard to recruit and retain referees.

“In football, there are portions of our state that do struggle to find officials,” Anderson says. “Just last week, I got a couple of calls from schools that needed crews. We are short enough that some administrators are talking about moving games to Thursday so that there will be enough referees.”

He says there are many factors in the shortage, “but the leading cause, if I were to poll officials, is just poor sportsmanship.” People have to realize, Anderson says, that amateur events are refereed by amateur officials.

“We’ll have some fans who get unruly,” he says, “but never physical. … It’s an amateur football game worked by amateur officials and there are going to be mistakes by officials, coaches and players. We just have to learn to understand that.”

“Kill the ump” is a cry that harkens to the early days of baseball. There was a 1950 comedy called Kill the Umpire. But Mano says that’s one phrase he hasn’t heard in public for many years. “It’s no joke anymore,” he says.

Contributing: Courtney Cronin of the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger and Niraj Warikoo of the Detroit Free Press

49ers Fans Attacking Rival

Only one security guard was able to intervene when a Vikings fan was kicked and punched by multiple 49ers fans on Monday.

A video of multiple San Francisco 49ers fans assaulting a Minnesota Vikings fan on the ground outside the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on Monday night went viral this week after a 49ers fan posted it to his Facebook account.

In the video, 49ers fans are seen kicking and punching a defenseless man in a Vikings jersey as the crowd around them screams at them to stop.

The primary agitator is a man in a Jerry Rice jersey who follows the Vikings fan as he tries to crawl away from the attack. Another man wearing a Patrick Willis jersey and a small woman in a NaVorro Bowman jersey also follow and attack the man as he tries to get away.

“The 49ers won! What the hell is wrong with you guys?” a man off-camera can be heard yelling at the people kicking and punching the Vikings fan.

A lone security guard, an employee of Landmark Event Staffing, is seen defusing the situation and manages to hold off the 49ers fans long enough for the Vikings fan to get away.

In a statement released Tuesday, the 49ers called the incident “disturbing.”

“The 49ers and our public safety partners have a steadfast commitment to ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience for all visitors to Levi’s Stadium and unacceptable behavior such as this will not be tolerated,” the team said.

On Wednesday, the 49ers added they found it “sad that the actions of a few can negatively affect the reputation of a great fan base.”

The victim, a 35-year-old father of two whose wife is a 49ers fan, sustained a concussion and bruises on his head from the attack, BuzzFeed News learned Tuesday.

A spokesman for the Santa Clara Police Department said they were investigating the situation, but that no arrests had been made. Investigators are in contact with the victim, police said.

The 49ers said they were “collaborating” with the SCPD in the investigation.

The video of the attack was posted on Facebook by 23-year-old Brandon Cosio, who told BuzzFeed News he wasn’t aware his post setting were set to public when he uploaded the video Monday night.

After the video went viral, Cosio said four police officers and two Santa Clara detectives show up at his home.

“I thought I was just sharing a video with friends of mine. Never in a million years would I have thought that it would get 1.6 million views within 12 hours,” he said.

“If I had known that I would he never posted it and just gave it to the police immediately,” he said.

Cosio later deleted the video.

In a caption on the video post, Cosio explained what he saw leading up to the brawl:

The Viking fan in the video and a 49er fan NOT in the video were talking smack to each other, getting into each others [sic] faces. A lot of fans from both sides were telling both people to stop and just walk to their cars. The 49er fan then walked away from the situation and that’s when the Viking fan may have got a little cocky. The Viking fan turned around and addressed everyone behind him (mostly 49er fans). He said ” what’s up, any of you fuckers want some?!” At that point everyone went silent for 2 seconds then as the Viking fan was turning around to walk away, the 49er fan in the black (at the beginning of the video who threw the first punch) tackled him to the ground. That’s where the video starts.

Cosio would not comment further on the brawl, but commended the Landmark Security guard for breaking up the situation, suggesting that he even saved the Vikings fan’s life.

“If he wasn’t there, things could have gotten a lot worse,” Cosio said. “There were zero police officers in the area, from the beginning of the fight until the end. Zero showed up.”

Cosio said he told detectives that he had never seen police patrolling the stadium parking lots after games, except to direct traffic.

The SCPD and the 49ers each declined to provide numbers of security guards or police assigned to each game at Levi’s Stadium, citing safety and privacy concerns. However, the team’s struggles with properly staffing and allocating security around the stadium has been well documented since its opening in 2014.

Mike Rosenberg, a former San Jose Mercury News reporter who covered the stadium development for four years and is now based in Seattle, reported in 2013 that the City of Santa Clara was seeking 120 police officers to work stadium duty for $55 per hour in addition to in-house SCPD officers.

Separate from the game-day police officers for hire, 49ers contractor Landmark Event Staffing keeps a continual list of ads on Craigslist seeking security and other fan services positions. Rosenberg reported in August 2014, four days before the first 49ers game was played at the stadium, that Landmark was posting ads that offered to pay $290 certification costs for prospective security guards.

Levi’s Stadium and the 49ers have also struggled to make parking at or around the stadium easy for fans attending games. The 49ers did not host a Monday night or Thursday night game during their inaugural season at Levi’s due to a parking shortage, partially because lots are in use by employees of nearby businesses on weekdays.

The team managed to add parking between this season and last, but the parking situation has required a considerable amount of game-day event staffers to help manage the traffic in and out of the stadium.

“I think the assumption was the ‘wine and cheese crowd’ that came with high ticket prices would make going to games safer than Candlestick,” Rosenberg told BuzzFeed News Wednesday. “But there are always going to be drunk and violent fans looking to cause trouble.”

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