107 killed in crane collapse at Mecca’s Grand Mosque

Story highlights

Witness says crane toppled over during a "sandstorm which turned to rainstorm"

Saudi Civil Defense says via Twitter that storms caused the crane collapse

Mecca's Masjid al-Haram surrounds Islam's holiest site, the Kaaba

CNN  — 

A powerful storm toppled a construction crane Friday afternoon at the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque, in Mecca – killing at least 107 people and injuring 238 others, Saudi Arabia’s civil defense authorities said on Twitter.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud visited the site of the crane collapse Saturday, according to the state-run Saudi Press agency.

The crane fell 10 days before the start of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage expected to bring 2 million people to Mecca. The Masjid al-Haram is the largest mosque in the world and surrounds Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba – a cube-shaped shrine that worshippers circle.

Mecca locator map

One man said the bad weather contributed to the chaos after the crane toppled over.

“We just washed and were getting ready to head to the Masjid al-Haram for the Maghrib prayer (sunset prayer),” said Yahya Al Hashemi, 30, a CNN iReporter who shot iPhone video of the crane striking the roof of the mosque. “It was a sandstorm which turned to rainstorm and lot of the construction covering boards were flying around, and lots of cracking noises which unfortunately ended with this tragedy. … Everybody were pushing trying to escape from inside towards the exits.”

More than 50 rescue teams and 80 ambulances converged on the mosque as part of the rescue effort after the crane fell at 5:24 p.m. local time (10:23 a.m. ET), said Saudi Civil Defense Director Maj. Gen Suleiman al-Amro.

The crane collapsed after a strong thunderstorm hit Mecca, bringing gusty winds that shifted direction and caused the local temperatures to drop, CNN meteorologists reported.

Khaled Al-Maeena, editor at large at the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah, said the storm was so strong it uprooted trees and broke window panes throughout Mecca. The crane fell between times the mosque is crowded with people, he said.

“Had it happened an hour later it would have been much worse,” he said. “Had it happened five hours earlier or four hours earlier, I think the death toll would have been more than a thousand.

Construction cranes surround the Grand Mosque, which is undergoing expansions to make the pilgrimage more manageable, he said.

“The irony is that all this expansion was being done to see to the welfare of the pilgrims,” he said.

The Grand Mosque is no stranger to tragedies, often because of the crush of people in Mecca for Hajj.

In 2006, a stampede killed at least 363 people. As with other incidents, it happened during a religious ritual in which the pilgrims stone a symbolic devil.

Hundreds were killed in other stampedes in 2004 and 1998, and 1,426 died in 1990.

Islam requires every Muslim who is physically and financially able to make the journey to Mecca at least once in his/her life.

Hajj occurs two months and 10 days after Ramadan ends, during the Islamic month of Dhul-Hijjah.

CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali and Nick Paton Walsh contributed to this report.