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.