- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

ANANDPUR SAHIB, India (AP) – Family members moved through row after row of bodies overnight in a grim search for their loved ones among the 145 people killed in a deadly stampede at a remote mountaintop Hindu temple.

In many cases, families lost several relatives who were killed together as they went to the Naina Devi Temple in the foothills of the Himalayas Sunday to celebrate Shravan Navratras, a nine-day festival that honors the Hindu goddess Shakrti, or divine mother.

Mukesh Chabba went to the temple with 11 family members to celebrate the recent birth of his son. Only five of them survived.

The 31-year-old farmer lost both of his parents, his wife, his 2-year-old daughter, his brother and sister-in-law and their 17 year old daughter. He saved his infant son by passing him to a young man who was on a ledge above the main path, he said.

“There was a lot of shouting and pushing. People fell down and could not get up. They just suffocated,” he said.

Authorities said an investigation will be launched and offered compensation to families of the victims.

By dawn Monday, only 12 bodies remained unidentified at the hospital in Anandpur Sahaib, a town near the temple where the disaster occurred. Volunteer workers from nearby temples helped relatives load the victims onto vehicles to be taken home for cremation.

Police said 145 people, many of them women and children, were killed and 37 injured after rumors of a landslide caused thousands of panicked pilgrims to stampede at the shrine. An estimated 25,000 people were on the mountain at the time.

Pilgrims already at the temple began running down the narrow path leading from the peak. There, they collided with devotees winding their way up.

With a concrete wall on one side and a precipice on the other, there was nowhere to escape and they were crushed. At one point, a guard rail broke and dozens of people fell to their deaths.

But survivors said police were also partly to blame, with officers blocking the escape route below.

“The police did not allow people to step back. Meanwhile, people started coming down from above shouting go back, go back,” said Ramesh Kumar Saini, who was at the temple. “Since the police did not allow the people to go back, this tragedy happened.”

The result was horrific.

The bodies of the devotees – many dressed in brightly colored holiday clothes – carpeted the path, intertwined with flattened iron railings. Many still held the flowers and food they planned to offer at the temple.

Visiting the scene, Himachal Pradesh state Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhuma announced an investigation into the cause of the disaster would be set up and said compensation of $2,380 would be paid to the families of each victim.

Deadly stampedes are a relatively common occurrence at temples in India, where large crowds – sometimes hundreds of thousands of people – congregate in small areas lacking facilities to control big gatherings.

Nevertheless, many of the faithful were undeterred after the disaster. By Monday morning, hundreds of pilgrims had resumed their trek up the mountain to give offerings to the goddess.

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