A Brief History
On October 13, 2013 (too many “13’s” in that date?), 115 Indians were killed and another 110 injured during the Hindu festival of Navratri at the Ratangahr Mata Temple in India when a stampede occurred on a bridge. Today we list 10 such unhappy times when a religious activity or celebration went terribly wrong. (BTW, Today, October 13, 2017, is Friday the 13th!)
1. Navratri Festival, 2013.
A common Indian Hindu festival held each Autumn for 10 days and 9 nights, the method and reason for celebrating varies from region to region. Dancing, recitals, plays, rituals with sacred statues, chanting Hindu scripture, fancy decorations, and other festivities are all part of the celebration, which coincides with the Monsoon and growing seasons. Alternately called Navrathri or Sharad Navratri, the festival celebrates the victory of Rama over the demon king Ravana, or the victory of the Goddess Durga over the buffalo demon, restoring Dharma. (You may recognize the word Dharma from the tv show Lost. Dharma is a nebulous term roughly meaning accord and stasis, or harmony or something like that…) In other areas of India, other struggles between Gods and demons are celebrated. The deadly stampede was caused when a section of railing broke, and a rumor that the bridge was going to collapse raced through the crowd of 25,000 people on the bridge, triggering the stampede. Other reasons for the stampede have been postulated, and estimates of the actual death toll are as high as 400. In 2006, another 56 people were killed at the same location at the Navratri, this time when water released from an upstream river washed away the religious celebrants.
2. Mecca Hajj, 2015.
Every year Muslim pilgrims from around the world flock to the Holy City of Mecca in Saudi Arabia to make their pilgrimage, called the Hajj. Many times over the years disasters have taken the lives of hundreds of pilgrims, mostly from stampedes and trampling by enormous crowds, although some incidents occurred during “stoning rituals.” In 2015, the largest loss of life during a Hajj happened when a crowd stampeded, resulting in an announced 4173 deaths (unknown how many injured). Later, Saudi officials changed the official death toll a couple times, settling on less than 800 deaths in an obvious attempt to minimize the bad publicity. Other estimates are in the 2200-2400 deaths range. In 1975 a tent fire claimed 200 victims at the Hajj, and in 1997 another tent fire killed 343 pilgrims and injured at least 1500 more. In 1990 1426 people died, crushed in the crowd. A 2004 stampede during the Hajj killed 251 pilgrims, and in 2006 a Mecca hotel collapse killed at least 76 during the Hajj.
3. Mecca Hajj, 1987.
Unlike the many other fatal incidents during the Hajj, the 1987 incident was plainly man-made. A riot broke out between pilgrims of the 2 main Islamic sects, Sunni and Shia Muslims, resulting in the deaths of over 400 of the faithful. Iranian demonstrators (Shia) clashed with Saudi security police (Sunni) resulting in most of the deaths. (Muslims are required to make at least 1 Hajj during their lifetime, although some attempt to make many more pilgrimages than just 1. In recent years over a million people attend the Hajj each year.) Between 1973 and 1991 at least 6 airplane crashes carrying pilgrims to or from Mecca for the Hajj resulted in the deaths of at least 156 people in one crash to over 300 dead in another. Many pilgrims also spread disease among each other each year, resulting in scores or even hundreds of deaths each Hajj.
4. Uyo Church Collapse, 2016.
While holding a ceremony to consecrate a bishop at the Reigners Bible Church International in Oyo, Nigeria, thousands of people attended to observe the ceremony. Even local and regional government officials attended. Part way through the ceremony, the roof of the church collapsed from the center portion, killing as many as 160 people. Apparently the building had only just been completed, although some reports that the work was not even finished circulated. As usual, government official death toll numbers were less than the obvious amount of people killed.
5. Shiloh Baptist Church Panic, 1902.
An African American church located in Birmingham, Alabama suffered a tragedy when a dispute broke out at the end of a service in which Booker T. Washington addressed a crowd of 3000 people. An argument over a seat in the choir resulted in someone shouting “Fight!” which was misheard as “Fire” causing a stampede that killed 115 people. As a minister raced to the podium to urge calm and yelled “Quiet!” he was misheard as again warning of the non-existent fire. Panic ensued unabated. With the church main floor about 15 feet above ground level, the rush of people to the stairs at the exit resulted in many being pushed over and falling, with hundreds of other people falling on top of those that fell first, crushing the people on the bottom. Many other people that fell or were crushed suffered serious injuries, such as broken bones. Many of the dead had suffocated.
6. Carrollton Bus Crash, 1988.
Another of the too common tales of a drunk driver causing innocent people to die, occurred when the inebriated driver of a pick-up truck in Kentucky on Interstate-71 drove head on into a school bus converted for use by a church group, killing 27 people and injuring 34 more. The bus passengers were teens from a local Assembly of God church on their way to Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati, Ohio when the accident occurred. Although more teens wanted to go on the trip, the church Pastor insisted the legal limit of 66 passengers plus a driver be obeyed, undoubtedly saving more lives than if the bus had been overcrowded. Sadly, none of the passengers on the bus were killed or seriously injured by the impact, but were killed in the ensuing fire caused by a broken spring being driven into the gas tank. Some of the passengers that had escaped along with passerby’s that stopped to help assisted in extracting some of the passengers, resulting in at least a somewhat reduced death toll. This terrible accident resulted in the redesign of busses, especially insofar as emergency exits and fire prevention. The intoxicated driver of the pick-up was not killed, and was later convicted of causing the fatal wreck while intoxicated (blood alcohol content of .24 percent), and was sentenced to 16 years in jail. He had previously been convicted of a DUI and was driving the wrong way on the Interstate when he struck the bus.
7. Church of the Company Fire, 1863.
This tragedy happened at a Jesuit church in Santiago, Chile, during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The crowded church was adorned with a variety of lights inside the building, including oil lamps and many candles, when curtains or veils near the altar caught on fire, quickly turning into a blaze. Panicked people headed to the exit, which for some idiotic unknown reason had doors that opened inward instead of outward. The resulting crush at the door resulted in a jam of people that crushed those trapped in the doorway, preventing others from getting out. Meanwhile, the priests, demonstrating no brains whatsoever, retreated to the sacristy to save various religious articles, and closed the door behind them, thus not allowing anyone else to escape via the sacristy. A factor in the jamming of people at the door was the fashion of the day, with women wearing giant hoop skirts contributing to the jam. Although about 50 people were pulled out of the pileup of bodies at the door by rescuers, including the US envoy to Chile, at least 2500 people died in the fire, perhaps as many as 3000. It is believed this fire killed more people than any other single building fire in history.
8. Churches Struck by Lightning.
Numerous churches in the United States have been struck and destroyed by lighting over the years. Lightning of course is an “Act of God” to believers, and thus creates a serious question among the faithful about God’s intentions by allowing or even causing such an event to occur. Was God unhappy with the church building or the parishioners? Is the True God of a different faith than the church represents? Is the event a trial testing the fortitude and faith of the congregation or the pastor? Despite finding many cases of lighting destroying or damaging churches, I am happy to report I did not find cases of fatalities caused by such strikes. Of course, other “natural” disasters such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes often destroy churches and other religious buildings and monuments, leaving the same questions as the lightning strikes.
9. Charleston Church Massacre, 2015.
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was the scene of a mass shooting perpetrated by a 21 year old White Supremacist in which 9 people were killed and 1 wounded. Dylan Roof walked into the church where a prayer service was being held, and shot the participants, all African Americans, with a .45 caliber pistol. The shooter had at first pretended to be interested in the service, and began arguing with the pastor over Scripture before pulling his pistol and shooting. The dead ranged from 26 to 87 years old. Roof escaped the scene and was later arrested, having been identified by his own father and uncle. Convicted of 33 Federal crimes, Roof was sentenced to Death and Life in Prison Without Parole. He claimed at trial there was absolutely nothing wrong with himself, psychologically. (He was wrong.) The tragedy spawned a fierce debate over the display of the Confederate Flag, seen by many as a token of racism.
10. Waddell, Arizona Buddhist Massacre, 1991.
The Wat Pronkunaram Temple in Waddell became a shooting gallery for a 16 (Alessandro Garcia) and a 17 (Jonathan Doody) year old that left 9 monks and temple helpers dead at the place of Buddhist Worship. Waddell is an unincorporated town in Maricopa County, Arizona. The weapons used were a 20 gauge shotgun and a .22 caliber rifle, and the motive, unlike most hateful killings at religious places, was merely robbery. Incredibly, 4 Tucson men were arrested and confessions were “elicited” from them, but it turned out those men could not have committed the crime! (The 4 wrongfully accused men were later awarded $2.8 million in a settlement with Maricopa County.) The robbery netted only $2600 and some audio visual equipment. Both shooters were convicted and sentenced to multiple life in prison sentences, but Doody’s conviction was overturned on appeal, although he was later again convicted, this time sentenced to only 281 years in jail. The depraved teens had killed everyone present at the Temple at the time of the robbery in an intentional effort to leave no witnesses.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do these disasters mean? Is God or “The Gods” angry with the people? Are these mere accidents, or are they “the will of God?” Did these people deserve to die? Are these incidents a sign? Feel free to tell us what you think about these incidents and whether or not they have any correlation to religion or are just human misfortune in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Hawes, Jennifer Berry. Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness. St. Martin’s Press, 2019.