WAI, India – Thousands of sobbing relatives struggled to identify the blackened and bruised bodies of loved ones in a hospital Wednesday, a day after a stampede during a religious procession to a hilltop temple killed at least 258 people and injured 200 in western India.
The chain-reaction tragedy began when several Hindu pilgrims (search) inside the temple fell on a slippery floor and were crushed to death by the crowd. Word of the accident then trickled out to some of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims climbing toward the hilltop on a narrow walkway.
Angered over the deaths, some pilgrims began setting the shops lining the path on fire, sparking a stampede that killed at least 258 people, including 156 women, Subha Rao, the top district administrator, told The Associated Press.
Namdeo Yerunkar, 45, was among an estimated 300,000 devotees who had gathered for an annual Hindu festival coinciding with the full moon on Tuesday. He was on the downward journey from the hilltop temple when the stampede broke out.
"The crowd began pushing and I saw people falling like sacks on top of each other. I started shouting for help, but there were no policemen," Yerunkar recalled.
"Nobody paid any attention. As the bodies piled, I picked up coconuts and started throwing on the mob to alert them. An electrical pole came down from the crush of the pilgrims," he said, weeping uncontrollably.
Yerunkar said he helped pull 15 people alive from a mound of bodies. "But I couldn't find my wife Nirmala. I kept shouting for her."
He fainted after he identified his wife's body, wrapped in a white sheet, at the Wai hospital on Wednesday. They had been married for 22 years.
Police chief Chandrakant Kumbhar said the tragedy began when the temple floor became slippery from a ceremony that involved breaking coconuts in front of a deity. Some pilgrims fell and were trampled to death by others propelled forward by the mass of people behind them trying to get into the temple to make offerings.
"A couple of devotees slipped and fell on the floor. A mob from behind walked over them," Kumbhar said. "When their relatives, who were still climbing the stairs, heard the news, they became angry and set fire to some shops."
The fires were set along a packed, narrow walkway lined with tea stalls and shops leading up a hill to the temple. They set off what witnesses said was a stampede of screaming crowds fleeing in horror.
"People were running down the hill — it was madness," said Vijay Wankhede, who has a small shop near the temple.
Late Tuesday night, police and firefighters loaded bodies onto buses while sobbing relatives carried the crushed remains of their family members down the narrow hill path near Wai, about 150 miles south of Bombay.
Broken coconuts, torn shirts and shattered bangles lay on a slippery, wet floor outside the temple. Hundreds of stainless steel plates, traditionally used to make offerings of sweets and flowers to the gods, were strewn across the floor streaked red with vermilion powder used in the offerings.
The 2-foot-high idol of the goddess Mandra Devi (search) inside the temple was shrouded in smoke.
The fire spread to other parts of the temple grounds, and some structures were still in flames Tuesday night, although the main temple complex was safe, Kumbhar said.
The horrors lasted after the stampede ended.
"There was no place to keep the bodies," said Sanjay Mete, who sells flowers and offerings near the temple. "There were so many bodies that we stacked one body on top of another."
Mete was one of several volunteers who helped police put bodies into buses to be ferried to a town below. Using loudspeakers, police asked people to identify their relatives and requested that they carry the bodies down the hill themselves.
Some blamed organizers for not preparing properly for the enormous crowds that show up every year for the pilgrimage.
Stampedes are not uncommon at major Hindu religious festivals, which can attract millions of worshippers. Authorities are often unable to cope with the huge crowds.
In August, at least 39 Hindus were killed when pilgrims stampeded on the banks of a holy river in the town of Nasik, 110 miles northeast of Bombay. Fifty-one pilgrims died in 1999 after a rope meant to channel worshippers snapped in a landslide at a Hindu shrine in southern India.
In the worst accident, about 800 pilgrims died during a Hindu festival in 1954 in the northern city of Allahabad (search).