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Massive overcrowding, lack of exits and slippery mud contributed to deadly stampede in India

LUCKNOW, India (news agencies) — Authorities say massive overcrowding, insufficient exits, and other factors contributed to a deadly stampede at a religious festival in Northern India that killed at least 121 people.

Five more people died on Wednesday morning, local official Manish Chaudhry said, and 28 were still being treated in hospital.

The stampede happened on Tuesday afternoon in a village in Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh state, as large crowds rushed to exit a makeshift tent. It was not immediately clear what sparked the panic.

Authorities are investigating what happened and have launched a search for a Hindu guru known locally as Bhole Baba, as well as other organizers.

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

Overcrowding, poor planning and bad weather were among factors noted as contributing to the disaster.

Some quarter of a million people turned up for an event that was permitted to accomodate 80,000, held in a tent set up in a muddy field. It’s not clear how many made it inside the tent.

Utter Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath told reporters that a crowd of devotees surged towards the preacher to touch him as he was descending from the stage, causing chaos as volunteers struggled to intervene.

An initial report from the police suggests at this point thousands of people thronged toward the exit, where many slipped on the muddy ground, causing them to fall and be crushed by the crowds. Most of the dead were women.

The preacher’s Sri Jagar Guru Baba organization had spent more than two weeks preparing for the event.

Devotees from across the state, which with over 200 million people is India’s most populous, traveled to the village, with rows of parked vehicles stretching three kilometers.

Experts said the event violated safety norms. “The function was held in a makeshift tent without ensuring multiple exit routes. Typically, there should be eight to 10 well-marked exits opening into open areas,” said Sanjay Srivastava, a disaster management expert.

Instead, officials said it appeared there was only one small exit in the tent.

On Tuesday, hundreds of relatives had gathered at local hospitals, wailing in distress at the sight of the dead, placed on stretchers and covered in white sheets on the grounds outside. Buses and trucks also carried dozens of victims into morgues.

Sonu Kumar was one of many local residents who helped lift and move dead bodies after the accident. He criticized the preacher: “He sat in his car and left. And his devotees here fell one upon another and some were in the water.”

“The screams were so heart-wrenching. We have never seen anything like this before in our village,” Kumar added.

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, crying.

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

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

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