CHANDIGARH, India (Reuters) - At least 145 people, mostly women and children, were crushed to death under the feet of thousands of pilgrims in a stampede at a temple in northern India on Sunday, police said.
Hindu worshippers were snaking up a 4-km (2.5-mile) trail leading to the hilltop Nainadevi temple in Himachal Pradesh state, chanting and singing hymns, when the stampede occurred.
Police said the pilgrims might have panicked after heavy rains caused large stones from a retaining wall along the trail to fall.
The pilgrims started fleeing down the slope, breaking an iron railing and trampling falling women and children under their feet, said Daljit Singh Manhas, a senior police officer.
“We have confirmation now that 145 people have been killed,” he told Reuters. “We found eight to 10 stones which had fallen off and probably scared the people, causing the stampede.”
At least 40 children and 45 women were among the dead, police and health department officials said.
Thousands of worshippers had gathered at the temple in Bilaspur district, some 150 km (95 miles) north of the town of Chandigarh, to pray to the Hindu goddess Nainadevi during the annual festival.
Authorities said at last 48 other people were seriously injured and they were looking for more injured pilgrims in private clinics.
Witnesses said people had jumped over broken railings and bodies to save themselves. Children lost hold of their mothers’ hands and were crushed under the feet of scared pilgrims.
“Many children and women were shouting for help and I saw people tumbling down the hillside,” pilgrim Dev Swarup, 48, told Reuters by telephone from Bilaspur.
“There were rumors of boulders coming down on us and we all ran like the others,” said Swarup, his voice choked with emotion.
Television pictures showed slippers, torn clothes and bags with flowers and offerings littering the narrow path winding up the hill.
People crowded into hospitals looking for injured relatives.
Dozens of health workers were treating injured pilgrims on blood-spattered floors, as rescuers laid heaps of bodies beside them, television pictures showed.
“We need more medicines and blood, but we are trying to do our best with what we have,” a doctor said.
More than 10,000 people were trying to get into the temple when the stampede began and police had been struggling desperately to keep the situation under control.
“There were too many rumors, we tried our best to keep things under control but it went out of hand,” one officer said.
Most of the worshippers were from the neighboring state of Punjab, and their numbers rose sharply as the festival entered the weekend.
Stampedes at temples are not uncommon in India, where thousands of people gather to pray during festivals. In 2005, about 265 pilgrims were killed in a stampede near a temple in the western state of Maharashtra.
Writing by Bappa Majumdar; editing by Kevin Liffey