Pilgrims Killed in Crush to Get Home from Indian Festival

On the holiest of the 55 days of the Maha Kumbh Mela festival — expected to draw a total of 100 million people — a footbridge collapses and the ensuing panic results in multiple deaths

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Kevin Frayer / AP

Indian men carry the body of a woman killed in a stampede on the railway platform where the incident occurred at the main railway station in Allahabad, India, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013.

*This story was updated at 4:34 a.m. on Feb. 11 with the latest figures.

A scrum of ambulances and television vans gathered outside a hospital in Allahabad late Sunday evening after at least 37 people were killed and dozens injured in the pilgrims’ rush to get home after the holiest bathing day of the Maha Kumbh Mela festival. The cause: part of a footbridge at the Allahabad railway station collapsed earlier that evening while thousands of people waiting on platforms to board incoming trains. The carnage increased in the ensuing panic and a stampede.

All day, a seemingly endless stream of people had flowed through the streets of Allahabad, a city in northern India. Officials estimated that over 30 million people from across India arrived there to bathe in the Ganges over the course of the day, the most auspicious of six main bathing days during the 55-day festival. Millions of devotees awoke before dawn to make the excruciatingly crowded walk to the water’s edge. “The whole country is cursed,” said Bal Chand, explaining why he and 10 family members were making their way early this morning through the crowds. “Today you can feel the gods and goddesses come alive. If we take a bath, things will be better.”

(PHOTOS: Tens of Millions Gather at India’s Maha Kumbh Mela)

It’s a hope that drives as many as 100 million faithful bathers to endure crushing crowds and tough conditions while some spend more than a month in the Kumbh Mela grounds in Allahabad, where the festival is held every 12 years. Many left for home this afternoon, balancing unwieldy bundles of pots, clothes and bedrolls on their heads; and as that occurred, parts of the city came to a near standstill. Traffic police struggled to manage the pedestrian crowds streaming toward bus and railway stations, rickshaws, cars and scooters.

Not handling that surge properly might have contributed to today’s events, according to officials. Ram Shankar, head of the station’s railway police, says he arrived at the station around 9 p.m., where he saw 12 corpses, though other reports on Sunday night put the number of deaths as high as 18. “It was not a problem of organization,” Shankar said. But as people left the festival and flowed into the city to get home, the crowd “was not diverted to different routes to the city. The station was already packed.” The danger might have been alleviated if arrivals to the station had been dispersed, he says, adding: “But I am not defending myself. This is what has happened.”

(PHOTOS: Gathering of the Faithful: LIFE at India’s Colossal Kumbh Mela, 1953)

It is not the first time that the characteristically jubilant if jam-packed Kumbh Mela has been marred by tragedy. In 1954, in the first Kumbh Mela after India became independent from Britain, hundreds were killed in a stampede, though the exact number of deaths vary. In recent years, authorities running the event have made great efforts to improve crowd control within the festival grounds. On Sunday, the most crowded day of the festival, 14,000 police were deployed.

Police struggled to keep the teeming crowds at bay on Sunday morning as people rushed to the river banks. By early afternoon, an orthopedic surgeon at the main hospital in the large festival camp said he had made at least 20 casts for people who had broken their arms, legs and feet in the morning rush.

MORE: The World of the Kumbh Mela: Inside the Largest Single Gathering of Humanity