Rajahmundry: Twenty seven pilgrims, 23 of them women, died in a stampede on Tuesday on the banks of the Godavari river in Andhra Pradesh on the first day of a major religious festival Godavari Pushkaram.
Pilgrims surged towards one of the gates that allows access to the river banks and a group of women slipped causing the stampede, said officials.
The incident took place between 7.30 am and 8 am on the opening day of the 12-day event after gates were opened for people to take holy dip in the Godavari river.
"We have received crowd of more than the capacity of the ghat here which is about 15,000 whereas we today had about 50,000 outside the Ghat. There was pushing and pulling between the crowd coming out of the Ghat and those entering," East Godavari Collector Arun Kumar said.
The stampede happened soon after Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and his family members left the place after taking holy dip in the river.
Out of several Pushkar Ghats in the East Godavari district, people in particular had thronged in tens of thousands to this place, apparently taken in by publicity blitzkrieg that it is the "most holiest" among them, officials said.
They said that Rajahmundry town was highlighted in all advertisements on Pushkaram, while other areas where the river flows were reportedly not given "due importance" leading to people converging here, largely giving a go-bye to other ghats.
Officials also said the government setting a Muhurtham (auspicious time) at 6.26 am today for the commencement of Pushkaram prompted people to reach the spot at this hour to take a dip.
Andhra Pradesh DGP, J V Ramudu, said 27 people, including 23 women, lost their lives in the incident which officials said also left 25-30 people injured.
According to officials, the women were in the age group of 50-60. Most of the victims had been waiting since early hours.
"Some of them were also tired as they had travelled long distances to reach here and there is also a possibility they might have died due to suffocation," Rajahmundry Sub-Collector Vijay Ramaraju said.
"There was a sudden rush on this particular ghat, despite several ghats being earmarked for the convenience of the devotees within the vicinity. It may be that they had a feeling that this particular ghat (Pushkar ghat where the incident happened) is the holy one," DGP Ramudu told PTI adding, there was a lot of jostling and pushing among the large crowd.
A devotee, who is yet to recover from the shock of
the death of his wife and mother in the tragedy, said police personnel had not been deployed in sufficient numbers to control the crowd.
He said most areas of the ghat where the stampede took place were closed for about two hours to facilitate VIPs including the Chief Minister to take a dip in the river.
Lamenting the death of her mother Vijayalakshmi, a woman from Visakhapatnam said there was a mad rush and even before they realised what was happening, "we were overpowered by the surging crowd".
Many pilgrims also complained that gates were not opened to enter the ghat which led to the stampede and that drinking water was not available for those who were in the queues.
The Chief Minister termed the incident as "very unfortunate and shocking".
"I have come here many times and tried to ensure that the event is held smoothly. But some problems cropped up in execution", Naidu said, adding, an enquiry would be conducted.
Condoling the deaths, he announced an ex-gratia of Rs 10 lakh per family of the deceased.
Governor E S L Narasimhan, who spoke to Naidu, too conveyed his condolences to the bereaved families and appealed to the pilgrims to maintain peace and tranquility and ensure that the holy dip is taken in an orderly manner.
Slamming the AP government, former Union Minister Chiranjeevi said Naidu claimed to have made grand arrangements, but it all came to nought.
Godavari 'Pushkaram' is observed once in 12 years, but this time it is considered auspicious from astronomical point of view as it is Maha Pushkaralu which comes once in 144 years.
The 'Pushkaram' is a similar to the 'Kumbh Mela' performed alongside rivers elsewhere in the country and taking holy dip is the main ritual of the festival.
Meanwhile, YSR Congress president Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy, Andhra Pradesh Congress president N Raghuveera Reddy, his party colleague and MP Chiranjeevi, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and a number of other leaders condoled the deaths in the stampede.
Meanwhile, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu in New Delhi today offered condolences to those who died in a stampede.
"I was shocked to know the tragic incident that has taken place. It's unfortunate. I offer my heartfelt condolences. I hope the people who are injured will recover fast," he told reporters.
He said he had spoken to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu who assured him that all necessary precautions are being taken and the festival will go on.
Naidu appealed to the people visiting the festival to not to rush as having pious bath any day was the same. He urged people to wait, follow certain regulations and cooperate with local administration.
He said Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister has told him that a judicial inquiry has been ordered into the incident.
Naidu said sitting so far and leveling allegations was not correct and said that a judicial inquiry has already been ordered and one should wait till it gets completed.
He was asked to comment on allegations that the concentration of administrative and police officials on the Chief Minister's visit led to decrease in staff for crowd control.
"Leveling allegations and doing politics in everything is not right. Making every issue political and controversial while this pious programme is going is not in the interest of anybody. As far as we are concerned, we do not want to join any sort of criticism or counter criticism," he said.
He said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also spoken to the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister.
The district administration late this evening released a list of the names of 25 out of the 27 deceased. Two bodies were yet to be identified.
The deceased include one each from Bangalore and Bihar. The others were from East Godavari, Srikakulam, West Godavari, Vizinagaram and Visakhapatnam districts of Andhra Pradesh.
The names of the deceased: C Rangaswamy (age 55, Bangalore), P Meenakshi, (65, Bihar), K Janakamma (55, Nellore), D Krishnamma (52, East Godavari), M Anantha Lakshmi (30, East Godavari),? M Satyavathi (55, East Godavari), S Ammayamma (75, Srikakulam), P Lakshmi (42, Srikakulam), P Thirupathiamma (Srikakulam), P Ramakrishna (65, Srikakulam), P Pentaiah Naidu (60, Srikakulam),? P Nagalakshmi (42, Srikakulam), P Venkatappa Naidu (Srikakulam), O Appalanarasamma (50, Srikakulam), B Prasthana Kumar (12, Srikakulam), P Amaravathi (45, Srikakulam),?K Kalavathi (62, Srikakulam), L peramma (55, Srikakulam), A Peditalli (55, Vizinagaram),? A Narayanamma (60, Vizianagaram),? G Mangayamma (60, Visakhapatnam), P Vijaya Lakshmi (62, Visakhapatnam), K Mahalakshmi (60, Visakhapatnam),? B Lakshmi (West Godavari) and?M Lakshmanarao (70, West Godavari).