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Severe overcrowding, lack of exits contribute to deadly stampede at festival

An ambulance carries a person who died in a melee during a sermon at Hathras in India's Uttar Pradesh state on July 2, 2024. (Pawan Sharma/AFP via Getty Images)

HATHRAS, India (AP) — Severe overcrowding and a lack of exits contributed to a stampede at a religious festival that killed at least 121 people in northern India, authorities said Wednesday, as the faithful surged toward the preacher and chaos ensued among the quarter of a million attendees.

As police searched for the organizers of the event, an attorney for the preacher said he would cooperate with authorities. More than two dozen injured people were still being treated.

Deadly stampedes are relatively common at Indian religious festivals, where large crowds gather in small areas with shoddy infrastructure and few safety measures.

The event had been permitted to accommodate only 80,000 people. It’s not clear how many made it inside the giant tent set up in a muddy field in a village in Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh state.

It was not clear what sparked the stampede. The state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, told reporters that a crowd rushed toward the preacher to touch him as he was descending from the stage, and volunteers struggled to intervene.

An initial report from police suggested that thousands of people then thronged the exits and many slipped on the muddy ground, causing them to fall and be crushed. Most of the dead were women.

The chaos appeared to continue outside the tent when people ran toward the preacher, a Hindu guru known locally as Bhole Baba, as he left in a vehicle. His security personnel pushed the crowd back, causing more people to fall, according to officials.

Authorities were investigating and searching for the organizers, whose whereabouts were not known. Police registered a case of culpable homicide against two organizers, but excluded the preacher. Culpable homicide carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment in India. Adityanath said he ordered an inquiry by a retired judge into the deaths.

A.P. Singh, an attorney representing the preacher, blamed some “anti-social elements” for disrupting the peace and creating chaos, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

“The preacher is ready to cooperate with state authorities and the police,” PTI quoted Singh as saying in an interview.

Binod Sokhna, who lost his mother, daughter and wife, wept as he walked out of a morgue on Wednesday.

“My son called me and said, ‘Papa, mother is no more. Come here immediately.’ My wife is no more,” he said.

The preacher’s Sri Jagat Guru Baba organization had spent more than two weeks preparing for the event. Followers from across the state — India’s most populous with over 200 million people — traveled to the village, with rows of parked vehicles stretching 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles).

State official Ashish Kumar said there were insufficient exits in the tent. Experts said the event violated safety norms. “The function was held in a makeshift tent without ensuring multiple exit routes,” said Sanjay Srivastava, a disaster management expert.

Sonu Kumar was one of many residents who helped move dead bodies after the stampede and its “heart-wrenching” screams. He criticized the preacher: “He sat in his car and left. And his devotees here fell one upon another.”

In 2013, pilgrims visiting a temple for a popular Hindu festival in central Madhya Pradesh state trampled one another amid fears that a bridge would collapse. At least 115 were crushed to death or died in the river.

In 2011, more than 100 people died in a crush at a religious festival in the southern state of Kerala.

Banerjee reported from Lucknow, India. Associated Press writer Krutika Pathi contributed from New Delhi. Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.