When the gates of Saifee Mahal suddenly shut at 1.30 am Saturday, thousands milling about there broke into a panic. According to those inside the Mahal, around 50 people were allowed in at a time. The gates thus opened and closed every few minutes. After paying their final respects, devotees exited both from the main gate and also a from a rear exit located close to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan’s bungalow Varsha.
Things, however, changed when no one was prepared to leave. “The body was placed in an air-conditioned hall on the ground floor and two queues had been made using barricades. Everything was smooth when suddenly, there was no space inside the Mahal. So the gates had to be shut for a while. But the crowd thought they wouldn’t be allowed to enter now,” said Abdulali Solanki, a driver at the Mahal. The lack of a public address system only added to the chaos.
With the exit gates closed, the crowd turned to the walls. “A lot of men began to scale the 10-feet walls, but the pressure behind the gates increased. The gates opened without warning and those in front were crushed. They kept walking over those fallen on the ground. A lot of people passed out because of suffocation. Others suffered injuries to heads and fractures to limbs,” said Dashrath Ghanekar, who lives in the state government quarters located next to Mahal.
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From grilled terraces of their ground-floor homes, Dashrath and his neighbours saw the stampede that claimed 18 lives and injured 46 people. “The first group of people arrived at Friday noon. They just stopped their vehicles and ran inside the Mahal. They did not listen to anyone, not even the guards employed by the Syedna’s family and definitely not the police,” said Ghanekar.
Although it is hard to say what triggered the stampede, police officials said that even before they could call in more forces to control the crowd, the entire Malabar Hill area and the lane leading to Varsha and Saifee Mahal was packed with more than 60,000 people.
A 19-year-old boy from Marol in Andheri said he arrived at Malabar Hill at 1.30 am, just when the stampede erupted. “I was inside the Mahal paying homage when I heard cries from outside the gate. I saw the gates getting closed,” he said.
All through the night, a huge crowd of sobbing devotees did their best to enter the Mahal. “Those who were too old to walk were carried on the shoulders by the able-bodied. People kept tripping on flowerpots placed below our homes. There was no space to walk,” said Komal Bhanat, a resident of the area.
When the police finally began to clear out the lane, very few paid any heed. “No one was prepared to leave. Lots of men climbed the wall of a bungalow next to the Mahal and stayed there till morning. Others rushed into our homes and didn’t leave till the body was taken out of the Mahal in the morning,” she said.