107 are dead and 238 injured in the wake of a major collapse of a giant building crane near the holy site of the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in the evening hours of 11 September. Initial news reports put the blame on severe weather that swept through the Saudi kingdom, with amateur videos, shot in the earlier in the day, showing torrential downpours accompanied by strong winds. But, in the hours, after the disaster, which comes days before the pilgrimage to Mecca, questions raised by experts in the field bring forth more questions than answers. Indeed, those questions raise concern over possible negligence.
Those thinking that this accident is a one-time anomaly should think again. A Saudi architectural consultant, Gamal Shaqdar, spoke bitterly, on Twitter, of attempts to alert the Saudi authorities to the unsafe nature of the project went unheeded. In pointing out the safety issues for the mammoth project, involving the expansion of the Islamic world’s most holy site, Shaqdar pointed to two fires which occurred on 23 July, resulting in injuries, and 29 August.
Indeed, the expansion of the Grand Mosque has been plagued with controversy from the outset, as a Time article laid out late last year. The charges, while serious, do not relate to safety, but paint a picture of a kingdom far more interested in modernising and reaping financial benefit than in safeguarding the historical treasures associated with the Holy Kaaba. In early November 2014 “any vestiges of the portico and columns were reduced to rubble”, charged Time. This damage, while for expansion purposes, Saudi activists say was part of a larger pattern of destruction that had seen in, the past years, the destruction of “mosques and key sites… dating back to the time of Muhammed”, said the London-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.
But today’s major damage, both human and architectural, could have possibly been avoided, an exclusive Saudi Aramaco contractor told Daily News Egypt. Amir (last name withheld to protect identity), with the behemoth corporation, for over a decade, and with much experience working with precisely the same German crane that caused the Mecca disaster, says action could have averted the carnage. This was a “mesh boom type of crane” different from its telescopic boom counterpart, explained the expert.
Mesh, as its name implies, has holes to counter wind effects, extremely key when dealing with “monsters” that operate at such heights. “It is German made …one of the best in the market”, most crucially continued the engineer, this type of “mesh boom… will allow the wind to pass through the boom with minimum effect”. But with these complex, mammoth projects, timing is everything: “The wind was extremely strong… the operator should have lowered the boom to its lowest level” to avoid disaster. Deeply troublingly, the monster crane, explains Amir, should have stopped operation in such conditions. “It’s about something called Stop Work Authority…in such extreme conditions the contractor should have raised the red flag on the whole operation.”
But this did not occur in this tragic case, and when asked if this indicated potential negligence, based on the information, pictures and videos freely available in the public sphere, the engineer did not back down. Specifically, when asked if this was personal negligence more so than structural or systematic negligence, the answer was unequivocal: “I would go with that, yes.”
These critical safety features are laid out down to microscopic minutia by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Chief among the focal points for crane operation, according to these internationally acknowledged and widely respected bodies, are “the principle of set up, rigging, hoisting, extending the boom, swinging a load, pinching and crushing points”. In fact, the manual, strongly suggests that, even if it is not legally mandated locally to demand training and certification, that certification be a mandatory “prerequisite for employment”.
Applying even stricter guidelines, a senior PE Amin Greiss (professional engineer), with 40 years in the field, employed by the American construction giant Haks, compared the positioning of the mesh boom in severely windy conditions to ‘driving a car without breaks’. With advances in metrology, the storm was, potentially, predictable and the appropriate safety precautions should have been taken. Among these precautions, explained Greiss, would be the evacuation of the surrounding area diametrically to match the height of the boom in question, at the very least. In simpler terms, if the height of the boom were 5,000 feet, for example, then the area of evacuation would, accordingly, be 5,000 feet in all directions.
At this juncture, with no formal investigation underway, and with the official statement of the Saudi Civil Defence forces placing blame completely on ‘strong winds and heavy rains’’, what actually occurred will remain a mystery until such investigation commences. But the Grand Mosque expansion project, initially managed by the highly experienced Bin Laden Group, as is often the case with mega construction projects, has subcontractors and some of the missing answers may lie within that labyrinth.
This disaster is, by no means, the largest one to occur near the Grand Mosque. The area surrounding that most holy of Muslim sites has seen multiple stampedes which saw a horrific 1,426 die in a pedestrian tunnel in 1990 and more recently, in 2006, when over 350 lost their lives.
Where there are no certain answers, questions must be asked to avert an even larger disaster with millions of pilgrims set to visit the very same place, days from now, while performing what is required from all able-bodied and financially capable Muslims: the Hajj (Pilgrimage).
The pilgrimage, occurring every year, is one of the five central pillars of a religion of over 1 billion practitioners world-wide, so it is not only incumbent on Saudis to insist on a fair and just accounting of what occurred, but responsibility lies with Muslims, the world over.
Many Muslims may argue that this was an act of God, that those who perished died martyrs in the best place possible on earth. While that maybe so, we owe it to those who lost their lives yesterday to see if there was more to this disaster than meets the eye.