37 dead in stampede at Indian Hindu festival

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ALLAHABAD, India -- Anxious relatives searched for missing family members in northern India yesterday during one of the world's largest religious gatherings, unsure whether their loved ones were caught in a stampede that killed 37 people or had gotten lost among the tens of millions of pilgrims.

People thronged to the main hospital in Allahabad to check for relatives among the dead and 39 injured in Sunday evening's stampede at the city's train station.

Tens of thousands were in the station waiting to board a train when railway officials announced a last-minute platform change, triggering the chaos.

An estimated 30 million Hindus took a dip Sunday at the Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers. It was part of the 55-day Kumbh Mela, or Pitcher Festival. Sunday was one of the holiest days to bathe.

People going missing at the Kumbh Mela is the stuff of legend in India; a dozen films have been made on the theme. Volunteers and officials use loudspeakers to give details of children and elderly people found on the river banks, having strayed from their families.

It was unclear how many people were missing directly because of the stampede.

Yesterday, state government officials and railway authorities told reporters that they had taken all precautions to prevent just such a tragedy.

Stampedes are common during mass religious festivities in India and elsewhere. At the Kumbh festival, platoons of policemen patrol the bathing areas to prevent overcrowding along the river banks in Allahabad.

An official in the Uttar Pradesh state government in charge of the festival arrangements resigned yesterday as the death toll mounted. State minister Mohammed Azam Khan said he had "moral responsibility" for the stampede, although the incident took place outside the Kumbh festival area.

Witnesses blamed police action. "We heard an announcement that our train is coming on platform No. 4 and when we started moving toward that platform through a footbridge, we were stopped. Then suddenly the police charged us with batons and the stampede started," Shushanto Kumar Sen said.

Police denied they had used batons to control the crowd.

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