Fire in the Desert

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MINA, Saudi Arabia: At least 180 Muslim pilgrims died when a tent city outside Mecca burst into flame. Witnesses said the fire started shortly before noon, possibly caused by the explosion of a gas cylinder used for cooking. High winds coupled with 104-degree heat caused the blaze to spread quickly among some 70,000 wood-and-canvas tents. Firefighters needed several hours to contain the blaze. As often happens in catastrophic fires, the majority of the casualties were victims of the side-effects of the blaze, in this case the stampede that broke out as the flames spread. The fire broke out as the more than two million Muslims making the pilgrimage entered one of the crucial stages of the Haj: the eighth day, when pilgrims must spend the night camping on the desert plain of Mina outside Mecca. The incident is another in a series of embarrassments for a Saudi government that has increasingly staked its legitimacy on its role as the guardian of the Holy Places. "King Fahd now carries the title 'Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,' an important element of legitimacy, given that the Saud family were basically conquerors of the tribes of the Arabian peninsula and have never permitted an election," notes TIME's Scott MacLeod. "King Fahd has spent billions on vast and opulent expansion projects in Mecca and sister city Medina, partly out of vanity and party to show the Muslim world and his subjects in Saudi Arabia that he is doing great things for Islam." The end result of the expansion is an ever-growing number of pilgrims pouring into a remote site for a two-week period, increasing the likelihood of tragedies. In 1994, 207 Indonesian pilgrims were killed in a stampede as worshippers surged toward a cavern for the symbolic ritual of "stoning the devil," while in 1990, 1,426 people died during a stampede inside a pedestrian tunnel that leads from Mecca to Mina. Although Mohammed bin Al-Suhaily, director-general of the Saudi defense agency, said that 181 pilgrims are dead and 800 injured, witnesses placed the number of dead at more than 300. The official number may well rise as the rescue continues.