Hajj stampede: How to stay safe in mass gatherings

Story highlights

  • Hundreds killed Thursday in stampede at Hajj pilgrimage
  • Juliette Kayyem: There's a science to staying safe in large groups

Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She also is the host of the Security Mom podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)The images flooding in of Thursday morning's stampede in Saudi Arabia tell a horrifying tale. Hundreds of people have suffered a gruesome death as they were crushed or trampled during a stampede that occurred at the annual pilgrimage of devout Muslims to their holy city of Mecca.

The stunning toll is even more outrageous when you consider that this latest disaster took place during a ritual known as "stoning the devil," which is backed by centuries of tradition and practice but has a history that already includes plenty of tragedy. Indeed, literally thousands of pilgrims have died or been injured during the Hajj since the 1980s, despite the billions of dollars spent by the Saudi government on infrastructure improvements.
    So why, after all these hundreds of years, do so many deaths continue to occur? And what can we learn about our own vulnerability and survival in crowds so we don't end up a victim, whether we're at a religious gathering, a concert or a nightclub?
    Juliette Kayyem
    Blame, initially, appears to reside with Saudi Arabia. The mecca pilgrimage generates millions of dollars for the country, yet after all these years large numbers of deaths still regularly occur, including at the same ritual that Thursday's tragedy occurred.
    Saudi ambulances arrive with pilgrims who were injured in a stampede at an emergency hospital in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, on the first day of Eid al-Adha on September 24, 2015. At least 310 people were killed and hundreds wounded during a stampede at the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia, in the second tragedy to strike the pilgrims this year. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)
    Remember, this is a planned event, which occurs on a known date every single year. It isn't like there are any surprises. That suggests that better crowd management and infrastructure could help avoid the kinds of scenes we saw in Mina. But Saudi officials must be willing to pursue changes and upgrades, including stronger communications capacity, training for personnel and information cards in hotels and other places where pilgrims stay.
    Part of efforts at improvement should also include the country being willing to open itself up to a healthy debate, inquiry and some potentially harsh criticism, which could include the convening of a rigorous after-action program and instituting lessons learned.
    But whatever the findings in Saudi Arabia -- and it must be remembered it is still unclear what caused the stampede -- there are certain universal precautions that apply to individuals, whatever the type of gathering, and wherever you live.
    Put simply, we should all aim to take charge of our own personal safety when dealing with crowds. And, as I've learned from years spent working in disaster response, as well as conversations with specialists such as Paul Wertheimer, a leading expert on crowd management and safety, there's a science to staying safe in large groups.
    Above all, be prepared. Hydrate. Wear appropriate shoes. Make sure you apply sunscreen if you're going to be outdoors. These small steps may seem minor, but when you need to move fast, a blister or sunburn can slow you down and even become critically dangerous.
    Along with preparation comes some situational awareness. When you arrive at your event, take a look around for exits and the routes that make the most sense for you. Are stairs an issue for your toddler and her stroller? Does your spouse have trouble with poorly lit hallways? Remember that you may not be able to take advantage of the main exit if things start to get bad. Take these things into account before disaster strikes.
    Next, keep tabs on your personal space and how you'll have to adjust to maintain it in a crush. If you feel the crowd getting too dense for comfort, get out before it gets worse. The most common danger is suffocation from too little air space, rather than trampling. If it's not possible to get out immediately, try to conserve your energy (don't shout or shove!) while following some of these key tips:
    Don't let your arms get pinned to the side. Keep firm, well-spread footing (that's where good shoes come into play again) and keep your arms close to your chest. Don't resist the force of the crowd. Similar to a rip tide, the rush of the crowd will be stronger than your chance of withstanding it, so try to go with the flow as you look for openings (moments of stillness) to weave in and out of the surge in a diagonal, stop-and-go motion.
    Finally, the most important thing you need to do while you're trying to get out of the crowd is avoid falling and keep those around you from falling as well. Help the people surrounding you, knowing that if someone near you goes down, your chances of escaping are greatly diminished. The fact is that in so many crises, your own individual chances of survival rise and fall with the people around you.
    Tragedies like those that occurred in Saudi Arabia aren't inevitable. We seem to have become too used to deaths at religious events like the Hajj event, dismissing them as somehow part of the pilgrimage. They are not. Death does not need to be destiny.