Puri, Nov. 4: The crush of several thousand devotees, pressed against a gate shut for a VIP visit, set off a stampede at the Jagannath temple killing four elderly pilgrims this morning.
The two grilled gates to the sanctum sanctorum had been locked at 5.45 am to allow state law secretary Dilip Sahoo and his wife a smooth visit. But the main wooden gate was kept open, allowing devotees to enter till the crowd inside, by some estimates, had swelled to 15,000.
“Sahoo and his wife entered the sanctum at 6.15 and spent 15 minutes inside the temple,” senior priest Pradip Mohapatra said.
But even after they left, the gates stayed shut while the crowd, choked by the thick fumes from the incense sticks and earthen lamps, began pressing against the grilles, eyewitnesses said.
At 6.45 am, one of the gates was suddenly opened, releasing a huge surge of humanity onto the stone stairs just outside, where another group of pilgrims came directly in its path.
“People were running down the staircase in panic, they were trying to outrun each other. It was madness,” shuddered 55-year-old Sabita Mishra, who had come from Ganjam.
“A couple of devotees slipped and fell down the stairs. The mob walked over them,” said Sanjib Panda, Puri police chief.
The dead were identified as Shanti Rath, 60 (Sambalpur), Sarojini Panda, 65 (Berhampur), Basanti Nayak, 55 (Balasore) and Anand Chandra Mohapatra, 70 (Ganjam). Janaki Dash, 56, is fighting for life at Cuttack’s SCB Medical College and the remaining 21 injured are being treated at a Puri hospital.
The temple’s chief administrator, Suresh Mohapatra, provided an alternative version of what triggered the stampede. He said the saris of a couple of devotees had caught fire from the temple lamps.
“But anything concrete can be said only after a five member fact-finding committee headed by the Puri collector submits its report,” he added.
Sahoo denied that the stampede was linked to his visit. “The accusations are malicious. The stampede happened after I and my wife left the sanctum,” the law secretary said before hanging up.
Sources said it’s the temple police, manned by commander Damodar Satpathy, who decide when to open or close the gates. Satpathy could not be reached for comment.
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik announced a probe by a high court judge and a Rs 1-lakh compensation for the family of each of the dead, to which the temple has promised to add Rs 1 lakh of its own.
A stampede in 1993 had claimed several lives in the shrine.