At least 19 people were killed and 25 injured in a stampede that occurred Saturday as they were crossing a crowded bridge to reach the venue of a Hindu religious ceremony in northern India, police said.
The stampede happened on the outskirts of Varanasi, a city in Uttar Pradesh state known for its temples, said police officer Kumar Prashant.
S.K. Bhagat, another police officer, said that organizers were expecting 3,000 Hindu devotees at the ceremony, but that more than 70,000 thronged the ashram of a local Hindu religious leader, Jai Baba Gurudev, on the banks of the Ganges River.
“We were not prepared for such a large crowd,” Raj Bahadur, a spokesman for the organizers, told The Associated Press.
The stampede occurred as police started turning back people from the overcrowded bridge, the Press Trust of India news agency cited Bahadur as saying. That triggered a rumor among the devotees that the bridge had collapsed, and they started running for safety, he said.
Prashant said 19 people were killed and 25 others were injured and hospitalized, including some in serious condition.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was deeply saddened by the tragedy. “I have spoken to officials and asked them to ensure all possible help to those affected,” he tweeted.
Deadly stampedes are fairly common during Indian religious festivals, where large crowds gather in small areas with few safety or crowd control measures.
In October 2013, a stampede in Madhya Pradesh state in central India killed more than 110 people, mostly women and children.