Saudi Arabia’s Civil Defense Director General, Suleiman bin Abdullah Al-Amro has said that high winds caused a massive crane to topple over and smash into the Grand Mosque in Makkah, killing at least 107 people ahead of the start of the annual Haj pilgrimage.
Al-Amro told Al-Arabiya TV on Saturday that unusually powerful winds in the area also tore down trees and signs as a storm whipped through the area.
He denied reports that lightning brought down the red-and-white crane or that some of those killed died in a stampede.
The civil defense directorate says 238 people were injured in the accident late Friday afternoon at the mosque, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba and is ringed by several cranes engaged in ongoing construction work to expand the site.
An engineer for Saudi Binladin Group, the company contracted to do the Grand Mosque expansion project, said it was a freak accident and not due to a technical fault.
“It was not a technical issue at all,” said the engineer, who asked not to be identified.
He told Agence France Presse that the crane, like many others on the project, had been there for three or four years without any problem.
Authorities are investigating the tragedy, which occurred as hundreds of thousands of Muslims from around the world were gathering for the annual Haj pilgrimage.
The engineer said the crane was the main one used on work to expand the tawaf, or circumambulation area around the Kaaba — a massive cubed structure at the centre of the mosque that is a focal point of worship.
“It has been installed in a way so as not to affect the hundreds of thousands of worshippers in the area and in an extremely professional way,” he said, adding that “This is the most difficult place to work in, due to the huge numbers of people in the area.”
The crane’s heavy hook, which is able to lift hundreds of tons, began swaying and moved the whole crane with it, toppling into the mosque, the engineer explained.
A witness said the accident occurred during winds which were so strong they shook his car and tossed billboards around.
The development project is expanding the area of the Grand Mosque by 400,000 square meters (4.3 million square feet), allowing it to accommodate up to 2.2 million people at once.