2015 Hajj Stampede Analysis

hajj

September 24, 2015 was another day of infamy for Saudi Arabia.  A prolonged human stampede engulfed the Hajj, the annual religious pilgrimage to Mecca.  The “official” toll: 769 killed, 934 injured.

 

This was no stampede in the traditional sense.  The word “stampede” often invokes images of a mass panic.  People running for their lives and being trampled to death.  But what happens when you cannot move?

Keith Still, professor of crowd science at Manchester Metropolitan University, summed it up best, “People didn’t die because they panicked. They panicked because they were dying.”

They suffocated to death.  It’s called compressive asphyxiation.

Saudi Arabia is no stranger to tragedies at the Hajj.  The death count serves as a grim reminder of the dangers of mega-crowds.  When roughly 2 million people descend upon a small geographic location with limited infrastructure, bad things are bound to happen.  Factor in the oppressive heat (average high of 109 degrees F) and a very tight time frame for completing extensive holy rituals… and the Hajj becomes an irregular recipe for disaster.

1990 – 1,426
1994 – 270
1998 – 118
2001 – 35
2003 – 14
2004 – 251
2006 – 346

It’s the official Saudi “highlight reel.”  But I’m a little skeptical of the tallies.  Why?  Because the Associated Press lists the 2015 Hajj stampede death toll at 2,411 (over 3x the Saudi count).  Call me a cynic, but I place a bit more credence in the AP.  I won’t even touch on the injury totals.  Let’s just say those numbers tend to be massively under-inflated as well.

Regardless, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud demanded a full investigation.  He wanted answers.  And I’m sure the commission he created will get to the bottom of everything in a timely fashion (mind numbingly obvious, intentional sarcasm).

150122185219-restricted-saudi-crown-prince-super-169Through the years, the Saudi government has spent billions trying to fix their recurring stampede problem.  They’ve hired some of the world’s finest engineers to erect bridges and viaducts.  They’ve manufactured these sprawling, air conditioned tent cities.  They’ve constructed new roads and corridors to alleviate crowd pressure.  They’ve spent enormous sums of cash on state of the art security and video surveillance.

Regrettably, everything the government is doing… does NOT appear to be working.  Think about it for a second.  Try to picture almost 2,500 individuals suffocating to death.  It’s not a pretty sight.

Sometimes, when you have an irresolvable security issue of tremendous magnitude, it helps to examine the problem through the eyes of a child.  If you were to ask a ten year old for their honest thoughts on the Hajj, I imagine he/she might say, “This place is too crowded.  It’s too hot and it smells bad.  I wanna go home.

I tend to agree.  Rather than spending billions in an attempt to mitigate potential calamities, why not merely address the core issues?  Maybe elderly people shouldn’t be walking 3 miles during peak sun.  Maybe there should be stricter monitoring of choke points and traffic flow.  Maybe recognize the fact that Muslims from abroad might have difficulty assimilating.  There could be problems with the language barrier.

How about we just eliminate the potential for a stampede?  By changing the entire dynamic.  Instead of it being a singular yearly event, why not let people perform the Hajj at their discretion?  Anytime, all year long.  I know, I know… way too obvious.

Now I’d make these suggestions directly to the Saudis myself.  But speaking out against the royal family is a crime punishable by imprisonment and/or death.  In a recent move that sparked worldwide outrage, the Saudi government kicked off the new year with the beheading of 47 dissidents.  Charges ranged from civil disobedience to sedition.  Let’s just say that some dictators don’t appreciate having their authority questioned.  Probably not a good omen for those trying to remedy the safety issues of the Hajj.

So we’re left with this baffling dilemma.  And innocent people will likely continue to die.

I happen to be someone who studies the science of crowd management.  Now if I was seeking guidance here in the United States, I’d likely convene a roundtable of experts from private industry who deal with these issues on a regular basis.  And if I was searching for the best and brightest, it would probably steer me in the direction of the National Football League.  Their incident commanders are responsible for ensuring game day safety and ultimately held accountable for stadium security.

I’ll go out on a limb and predict that most of them would agree with my earlier recommendations.  I also think you’d see a broad contempt for those who oversee the Hajj.  Call it a hunch, but I think many would claim that Saudi officials seem to take a more “fatalistic and detached” approach to the recurring stampedes.  Historically speaking, the official Saudi response to tragedy has sounded something like this… “What is done will be done.  The will of Allah shall not be challenged.

Well, that line of reasoning just doesn’t cut it.  That kind of rationale leaves many people, especially myself, exasperated and scratching their heads.  You often ask yourself, “How could everyone be so directly complicit and utterly indifferent?”  It’s frustrating.

Well, here’s the good news.  At least OUR incident commanders and safety officials think differently.  They’re consummate professionals.  All on the same page.  Our government and private industry function in a way that’s vastly superior.  They see a problem, any security disconnect or inconsistencies… surely they’d address the issue ASAP.  They’re literally striving for perfection.  Uh, WRONG.

Here’s a trivial snippet of information.  We live in an era of wireless hyper-connectivity.  It ain’t 1982.  Every NFL stadium has 50,000 – 100,000 active cell phones.  These devices are capable of receiving real-time, false information (panic-inducing content, bomb threats, phony evac orders, hoax directives, etc.).  This security disconnect is a constant variable.  It’s not going to magically disappear.

Sensing that the rules of the game have changed, it has become necessary to explicitly warn people about the prospect of someone usurping the incident command structure — ordering their own evacuation with a malicious hoax saturation.  Now there are only two possible reasons such a scenario would unfold.

I.  Someone is trying to artificially generate a panic and manufacture a human stampede.

or far less likely, but still conceivable

II.  Someone is trying to stage a real-world, unscheduled stadium evacuation purely for their own personal amusement.

Either situation could lead to the same result — an artificially generated stampede.

So what’s the answer here?  How do you prevent a catastrophe of this nature?

Well, I’m not sure there’s any ultimate, full proof solution.  But I do know one thing.  At some point in the future, this dynamic will be tested.  It’s just the modern, technological equivalent of shouting FIRE in a crowded theater.  This leaves you with two distinct options: do nothing or do something.  The NFL and our federal government prefer the former — keeping people in the dark.  I prefer the latter — telling people the truth.

Moving forward, which do you think is the superior course of action?

There’s a reason why I mentioned how children view the world.  They tend to state the obvious.  One of these days, an individual, organization, terrorist group or nation state with malicious intent, is going to ATTEMPT to create an artificially generated stampede.  Regardless of what happens… in its aftermath, I suspect many people would ask the following two questions — “What just happened” and “Why didn’t anyone tell us  something like this COULD happen?”

Well the answer’s pretty straightforward.  Someone wanted to kill people.

It’s all very reminiscent of another security debacle.  Planes being hijacked and crashed into buildings.  I think we all know how that one turned out.