India on Tuesday launched an inquiry into a stampede which killed 18 women and children when a makeshift bridge collapsed at a Hindu festival, as devotees returned to pray at the scene of the tragedy.
The incident in the eastern city of Patna, near the holy Ganges river, occurred late on Monday as tens of thousands of worshippers rushed to offer prayers to the setting sun as part of the Hindu ritual of Chhath.
Despite the disaster, thousands of worshippers returned to the site before sunrise on Tuesday to pray as part of the festival schedule, offering fruits to the gods, lighting candles and bathing in the sacred water.
Relatives of victims gathered at a mass cremation on the riverbank, with many survivors saying poor organisation of the event caused the stampede.
Sunil Mahto said he was lucky to escape the crush of human bodies tumbling from the collapsed bridge.
“I blame the police and officials for failing to control the large crowds which were expected at this time,” Mahto told AFP. “I thank the almighty that I am alive.”
Along the muddy riverbank, the remains of the rope and bamboo bridge were still in place and the ground was scattered with discarded clothes, home-made sweet offerings and abandoned shoes.
“Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has ordered a probe,” Bihar state home secretary Amir Subhani told AFP. “I visited the site last night and will go there again to talk to witnesses, police and others.”
Groups of stunned people, some sobbing and wailing, had waited through the night outside Patna's main hospital where many of the victims were taken. At least a dozen people were seriously injured.
“People were in so much panic after the stampede that they threw away their baskets full of offerings and left there to save their lives,” Akhilesh Prasad, a tea vendor at a nearby lane, told local reporters.
Patna police superintendent Jayant Kant said 10 women and eight children were confirmed dead.
The low-slung bridge had been erected to help pilgrims over rough terrain en route to the Ganges, and gave way under the crush of the crowd, Kant said.
Power was lost at the scene when the bridge crashed, complicating the rescue.
Chhath, dedicated to the Hindu sun god Surya, is particularly popular in Bihar, India's second most populous state after neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.
An estimated 400 000 devotees thronged up to 65 riverside locations specially prepared by Bihar authorities to cater to worshippers travelling to the Ganges, which is revered by Hindus.
Around 50 000 people were present at Adalat Ganj, one of the worship locations in Patna, when the bridge collapsed.
Stampedes are a regular risk at religious events in India, where policing and crowd control are often inadequate.
In September, in nearby Jharkhand state, a crush at a religious celebration killed nine people, eight of them women.
More than 100 people died in January 2011 in the southern state of Kerala when panic spread among worshippers crossing mountainous terrain in the dark to visit a shrine.
The worst recent incident was in October 2008 when around 220 people died near a temple inside a famous fort in the northern city of Jodhpur.