When the fleeing pilgrims reached the end of the bridge, they realized that the south gate -- which opened inward -- was inexplicably locked. In the ensuing crush of bodies, rails along the side of the bridge collapsed; hundreds of people plunged into the Tigris or on to the concrete pilings beneath the bridge. Others suffocated as the crowd packed ever more tightly onto the bridge. Most of the dead were women, children, and the elderly.
Los Angeles Times reporter Borzou Daragahi, speaking with Terrence Smith of PBS’ Newshour, described the aftermath at Al-Aaimmah Bridge:
Well, it was still a lot of very, very skittish and nervous pilgrims, as well as a lot of police and Iraqi soldiers firing their weapons into the air trying to sort of maintain crowd control. There was a lot of very, very upset people, very sad people. People would gasp as they walked by a pile, really a mound of plastic slippers that apparently belonged to the -- those killed and injured in the incident. There was a bunch of politicians, including Ahmed Chalabi, who came to the scene with their security entourages and were sort of surveying the area.
. . . [T]his was just really awful. I mean, one of the things that keeps staying in my mind is those piles of plastic slippers and just sort of looking at them, you could tell by looking at them what kind of people were in this incident were killed and injured in this incident. They were just very poor people. You know, very, very small people -- like elderly and young and women and people who were too poor to afford shoes.
On Fox News Live that afternoon, Baghdad correspondent Andrew Stack was interrupted by breaking news less than a minute into his report on the bridge catastrophe. President Bush had ended his vacation two days early and was flying at that moment over the Louisiana Superdome, having decided to inspect the damage from Hurricane Katrina from the cabin of Air Force One.