NEW DELHI Thousands of panicked pilgrims stampeded Sunday at a remote mountaintop temple in northern India during celebrations to honor a Hindu goddess, sending dozens of people plummeting to their deaths and trampling scores more. Police said 145 people were killed.
Rumors of a landslide apparently started the panic at the shrine in the foothills of the Himalayas, said C.P. Verma, a senior government official in the Bilaspur district.
Pilgrims already at the Naina Devi Temple began running down the narrow path leading from the peak. There, they collided with devotees winding their way up.
With a concrete wall on one side and a precipice on the other, there was nowhere to escape and they were crushed. At one point a guard rail broke and dozens of people fell to their deaths.
The bodies of the devotees many dressed in brightly colored holiday clothes carpeted the path, intertwined with flattened iron railings. Many still held the flowers and food they planned to offer at the temple.
Police said they used a cable car at the shrine to ferry some of the bodies down, and helicopters flew in to take the wounded to hospitals.
At the Bilaspur hospital in Himachal Pradesh state, rescue workers unloaded bodies wrapped in brown blankets from a truck and laid them in neat rows so they could be identified by relatives.
"I rushed to the spot in search of my three children who had gone to pay obeisance at the hilltop shrine," Jawahar Khurana told the Press Trust of India news agency as he searched the bodies.
"I fail to understand why God was so cruel to us," he said.
All the bodies were taken to the Anandpur Sahib hospital in the neighboring state of Punjab where authorities were carrying out autopsies, senior police officer R. N. Dhoke told The Associated Press by telephone from the hospital. He said the death toll was not expected to rise further.
Many of the dead were women and children, he said, and another 37 people were injured and in hospital.
Tens of thousands of worshippers had flocked to the remote temple in the foothills of the Himalayas to celebrate Shravan Navratras, a nine-day festival that honors the Hindu goddess Shakrti, or divine mother.
The temple is about 155 miles northeast of New Delhi.
Deadly stampedes are a relatively common occurrence at temples in India, where large crowds sometimes hundreds of thousands of people congregate in small areas lacking facilities to control such big gatherings.
Sunday was the second day of the festival and authorities sought to reassure other pilgrims. "There is no need to panic, everything is normalized now," Verma said.