NASIK, India – Crowds of Hindu (search) pilgrims waiting to bathe in a holy river in western India surged over a flimsy bamboo fence, triggering a stampede that killed at least 39 people and injured 125.
Worshippers spilled to the ground as the fence collapsed and were trampled by the thousands of others pushing toward the Godavari River outside the town of Nasik, about 110 miles northeast of Bombay (search). Twenty-six of the dead were women, said Nasik Mayor Dashrath Patil.
"Old women were crying, 'Take me out! Help me,"' said Lalji Mistry, a 35-year-old pilgrim who got away in time. "People, even women, were pushing forward. Due to the weight of the crowd, people started falling down."
Wiping his dust-streaked face with a yellow shawl, Mistry shook his head in disbelief at the crowds that continued to worship at the Kumbh Mela festival (search), which spread across 40 square miles.
"Many don't know what's going on. They are still worshipping," said Mistry, a marble craftsman from the western state of Rajasthan.
Worshippers believe they can bathe away their sins in the Godavari River, which is considered holy to many Hindus. Thousands of pilgrims pack shoulder to shoulder in the muddy brown water.
Stampedes are not uncommon at major Hindu religious festivals, which can attract millions of worshippers. In 1954, about 800 pilgrims died during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.
Most recently, 51 pilgrims died in 1999 after rope meant to channel worshippers snapped in a landslide at a Hindu shrine in southern India. Fifty people died in 1986 in a stampede in the town of Haridwar.
Police in Nasik estimated that nearly 1.6 million people attended the festival Wednesday. About 60 million people are likely to participate at various times during the festival, which started July 30 and ends Monday.
Witnesses said rescue workers pleaded with crowds to make way so ambulances could rush the injured to hospitals. Workers heaved dozens of injured people into cars and police vehicles.
The injured included two police officers trying to control the swelling crowd, said Patil, the mayor.
Chhagan Bhujbal, deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, the state in which Nasik is located, said the flimsy barricade, meant to guide people toward the river, simply could not withstand the crush of people.
"There were some 50,000 people behind one barricade and they were pushing. The barricade suddenly broke and they just fell down," Bhujbal said. "It was a tragic accident."
Pawan Modi, a businessman from the eastern state of Bihar, waited among hundreds of people outside Nasik Civil Hospital, desperately seeking information about his sister, whom he feared may have been trampled. Inside, dozens of bodies were lined up in a row, covered by white sheets.
"I don't know if my sister escaped or if she was trapped inside," said Modi, 55, who said he was not allowed in the hospital because authorities worried about controlling the large crowd.
"I have been searching for my sister for hours. I hope she is inside and is well."
The stampede happened as thousands of other devotees lined up at the nearby Kalaram temple, where the Hindu god Rama is the presiding deity. After the holy dip, worshippers pay their respects to the god at the main temple and visit thousands of other smaller temples along Panchwati's narrow roads.
The Kumbh Mela festival is held when the Sun and Jupiter enter the constellation of Leo, once in 12 years. It is based on the Hindu myth about gods and demons who fought over a pot of nectar that would give them immortality.
The main festival is held near the northern Indian city of Allahabad, while the Nasik festival is one of the "mini-Kumbhs" held more often.
It has been a difficult week for the people of Maharashtra state. On Monday, a pair of car bombs exploded in Bombay, the state capital, killing 51 people. Authorities have blamed Muslim militants.