NEW DELHI — Thousands of pilgrims in northern India panicked Sunday when they thought the narrow bridge they were crossing was collapsing, Indian officials said.
The resulting stampede left at least 89 people dead and about 100 others injured.
About a half-million worshipers, by Indian media estimates, had flocked to the Ratangarh Temple in northern Madhya Pradesh state for a religious festival. Hindus’ Dussehra festival honors Lord Rama’s victory over the king of demons, Ravana.
A top state official, Anthony J.C. De Sa, told The Hindu newspaper about 25,000 people were on a 23-foot-wide bridge over the Sindh River on Sunday when a section of the bridge railing broke, causing fears the whole bridge was about to give way.
Television images of the scene showed piles of clothing littering the bridge. Many people are believed to have drowned after jumping off the bridge into the river. Others were injured in the crush above.
In the aftermath of the panic, relief efforts were delayed by traffic jams. Frustrated bystanders later turned on police, pelting them with stones.
A deadly stampede took place at the same site in 2006. Reports conflicted about the start of the crush Sunday.
Some witnesses said police started it by charging into the crowd swinging canes; police denied the reports. Others said some pilgrims intentionally spread a rumor the bridge was about to collapse, in hopes of cutting the long line of people waiting to cross. Still others said they had heard the bridge had been hit by a tractor and was unstable.
Mr. De Sa said the bridge was less than four years old and “in good condition.”
One survivor, Atul Chaudhary, told the BBC’s Hindi service he heard screams and then crowds began pushing their way off the bridge. “Several people could be seen flattened to the ground in the midst of the melee,” he said. “Some of the youngsters panicked and jumped into the swollen river. I and my friends were close to the exit point, and along with several others ran for safety.”
Some witnesses said police failed to act promptly to control the crowd. The government has opened a judicial probe into stampede.
The tragedy occurred in the run-up to state elections. Officials quickly promised compensation of about $2,450 for the families of each of those killed. Those with serious injuries will receive about $820.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed condolences. “On this day of festivities, our hearts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” he said in a statement.