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MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia – For two Muslim siblings from the city of Bradford in Britain, it was a lifelong dream that their father take them on the hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia — but when that dream came true, it brought tragedy and changed their lives forever.
For 21-year-old Marya Tabassum, the hajj was a promised reward after she graduated from college earlier this year with a degree in social work. She and her brother Mohammed Haroon Akhtar, 18, arrived in Mecca with their father on Sept. 10, less than two weeks ahead of the pilgrimage.
What happened the following day would test their faith in ways they never imagined. Marya says it was like a "scene from a horror movie." Mohammed says it taught him "that anything is possible."
A violent thunderstorm descended on Mecca on Friday, Sept. 11, roaring through Islam's holiest city and toppling a massive crane that smashed into Mecca's Grand Mosque, killing 111 people and injuring nearly 400. The crane boom pierced through the roof of the mosque, bringing down slabs of reinforced concrete and leaving bodies lying amid pools of blood on the polished mosque floors as frightened survivors screamed in panic.
Marya and Mohammed, who had gone to the Grand Mosque with their father, were in the middle of the mayhem. They were injured but survived. Their father, whose whereabouts were unknown for several days, was later confirmed dead.
The siblings recounted their story to The Associated Press from their hospital beds this week in Mount Arafat, where the Saudi government took the moderately injured in the crane collapse, to help them perform the hajj with assistance and under medical supervision.
Once at the Grand Mosque, the three went to the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure shrouded in black silk that observant Muslims around the world face in prayer five times a day and which pilgrims circle seven times, counterclockwise, during pilgrimages.
As they circled the Kaaba that day, Marya asked her dad if they could get closer, close enough to touch it. He approved.
"As soon as we made the intention, it was as though God made a way for us to go straight to the Kaaba," she said. "We walked straight through the crowd ... we touched the wall and we just stayed there ... kissing the Kaaba, crying."
They circled the Kaaba a few more times until Mohammed, who suffers from asthma, needed to rest. They sat down, their father in the middle, between his two children.
"Thank you so much for taking me to the Kaaba," Marya said she told her dad, pulling his beard and pinching his cheeks playfully. "He didn't say anything. He just smiled."
Suddenly, it began to rain and a fierce storm whipped up. Some people took shelter under the ceiling of the mosque, but Marya and brother stepped closer to the Kaaba, under the open sky, to feel the rain and pray.
Their father stayed behind, taking video on his phone of his children.
"I looked to my left and I just saw him smiling," she said. It would be the last time she would see him.
The thunderous roar that followed, Marya would later learn, was from the crane toppling onto the Grand Mosque.
"We just heard a massive bang. We looked up and I saw things falling. My little brother grabbed me and we hit the floor," she said. "Once everything stopped falling, we opened our eyes and there were just dead bodies around ... Dad was not there."
Debris had hit Mohammed's foot, causing soft tissue damage that doctors say will take around six months to heel. Marya's foot was slashed, requiring surgery and stitches.
In the chaotic aftermath, Marya says she saw a man's body without the head, another body with a metal rod pierced through it. There were bits of bodies everywhere, and blood splashed across the floors of the mosque.
The siblings kept searching for their father but could not find him. "It was as though he just disappeared," Marya said.
A few days later, Mohammed said he received a call from one of his brothers from back home in Bradford, informing him that their father's body had been identified in a morgue and that he is now buried in Mecca.
"It's very traumatic," Mohammed said. The siblings underwent psychiatric evaluation and Mohammed said he was given anti-depressants for about three days to deal with the shock.
Though still grieving, the two siblings said they have found strength to complete the hajj without their father.
"We came here to do this together ... but ... it's all in Allah's hands," Mohammed said.
Neither of the two expressed anger at the crane operator, the Saudi Binladin Group, which a government investigation has faulted for not following operating procedures.
"We are humans, we do make mistakes," Mohammed said from the hospital at Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon some 1,400 years ago.
Marya said she feels "content" that it was their father's fate to die at the base of the Kaaba ahead of the hajj — a pilgrimage that ultimately seeks to erase past sins and purify one's soul.
But as she sat in a hospital bed in a room next to Mohammed's, she said she still expects their father to walk through the door at any moment.
"I don't think it's really hit me yet," she said, a single tear rolling down her cheek. "We came to do our hajj with dad, but he's not here."