The devastating Mecca pilgrimage stampede is a chilling reminder of the unexpected power of human crowds

More than 700 people died on Sep. 24 in Mina, Saudi Arabia, in a stampede of Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca, The New York Times reported. Hundreds more were injured.

In 1990, the deadliest-ever Hajj stampede killed 1,426 people in a tunnel between Mina and Mecca.

Such tragedies are not products of the Muslim pilgrimmage to Mecca in particular though; they’re markers of a common, largely underestimated danger: crowds.

The force of seven people is enough to bend steel, Edbert Hsu, a John Hopkins professor who has studied crowd-related deaths explained to Johns Hopkins Magazine. Imagine the terrifying power of hundreds, thousands, or — in the case of the Hajj — millions of people assembled in one place, moving in one direction.

While many imagine that crowd deaths are the result of trampling, they’re often the result of suffocation, as people are caught in between the force of so many others on every side. And they’re not rare.

A study by Hsu and collaborators identified 215 “human stampede events” between 1980 and 2007, which together resulted in at least 7,069 deaths. “Human stampedes are a recurring phenomenon that can trigger mass casualties ranging into the thousands,” Hsu wrote. It’s remarkable the large crowds that generate them don’t inspire more fear.

In “Crush Point,” a wide-ranging New Yorker story on the dangerous power of crowds, John Seabrook explains the chilling subtlely with which a place packed with people — be it a Black Friday sale, a religious pilgrimage, a soccer game, or a concert — can ever-so-subtly shift from a jostling celebration to a death trap:

The transition from fraternal smooshing to suffocating pressure — a “crowd crush” — often occurs almost imperceptibly; one doesn’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late to escape … At a certain point, you feel pressure on all sides of your body, and realise that you can’t raise your arms. You are pulled off your feet, and welded into a block of people. The crowd force squeezes the air out of your lungs, and you struggle to take another breath.

While it’s unclear exactly what spurred Thursday’s disaster, The New York Times noted that the tragedy “is likely to intensify fears that [Saudi Arabia] does not have the transportation and public safety infrastructure to channel and protect what is the world’s largest regular human migration.”

But part of the problem is that while Saudi Arabia has tried to make improvements to better accommodate crowds after repeated Hajj-related casualties, no one really knows exactly what works. Worse still, as Seabrook wrote in 2011, “human stampedes have more than doubled in each of the past two decades.”

Hsu argues, in the Johns Hopkins Magazine story, that “international health organisations have to recognise that this is an important type of disaster” — and devote appropriate resources to preventing it.

Yet there are larger, more troubling questions that remain: Can massive, dense gatherings of people ever be truly safe? Or will people in such crowds have to learn to accept the risk that one wrong move can ripple with terrifying, sometimes deadly speed?

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