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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

53 Crushed in Minsk Metro Stampede

MINSK, Belarus -- As Russian pop group Mango Mango played its closing number at a festival, the heavens opened over the Belarussian capital and lightning struck.

Within minutes, dozens of young people were dead and many more injured, crushed in an underpass to a metro station as they sought shelter from the storm Sunday evening.

Minsk Mayor Vladimir Yermoshin said Monday that 53 people died and about 150 were injured. He said 78 were hospitalized, with seven in critical condition and 32 in intensive care.

Most of the dead were teenage girls, some wearing high heels, who slipped on the wet steps into the underpass and were trampled to death or suffocated, Interior Minister Yury Sivakov said. Three policemen also were killed in the crush.

"About 300 people were lying here - one layer, another one," a policeman told a visibly shocked President Alexander Lukashenko during a televised visit to the scene. "We were carrying out the first layer of people and they were still alive. In the second one were the dead and injured."

At least 2,500 teenagers were crowded onto a lawn outside Minsk's Sports Palace - though some witnesses said the crowd was closer to 10,000.

Many were attracted by the colorful leaflets, posters and newspaper ads that had promised free glasses of beer, gym bags, television sets and other prizes to people who could collect the biggest number of Magna cigarette box tops and bring them to the Sports Palace.

The marathon party was organized by the Class Club Just Kraft company, a firm specializing in putting on shows. It started at noon Sunday and was supposed to go on for hours after the hot sun had set, with a rock concert on a grassy area outside the stadium.

As the concert got under way, teen-agers were dancing and drinking in front of the platform that had been built for the bands.

Then the rain started, and the hail, and hundreds of young people made a run for the nearby Nemiga metro station.

But somebody stumbled and fell on the rain-slickened cement of the underground passage - police said teen-age girls in high-heels were the first to fall - and others followed. The crowd kept surging in, running over those who had fallen.

"There was such a huge crowd. I was carried away by it when it rushed to the underpass,'' said Vitaly Milentyev, 19. "I was lucky. I managed to get out of the crowd literally by going between the legs of other people.''

Belarussian television showed distraught relatives at a hospital shouting names of loved ones to a policeman. Others anxiously scanned pictures of the dead pinned up at a local morgue.

Mourners poured into the underground passage Monday, laying carnations, forget-me-nots and lilacs along the steps and concrete floor where the teen-agers had died. Television and radio stations broadcast only news and classical music.

Lukashenko declared two days of national mourning. The first funerals will be held on Tuesday.

"It's a frightening tragedy," Lukashenko said. "For Belarus it is something unreal. It is a great regret mainly girls died."

"In this situation doing anything to avert the tragedy was practically impossible," Sivakov said. He said many in the crowd were drunk and few were carrying identification documents. Officials said they believed many were from outlying towns.

Lukashenko, who ordered a special commission under Prime Minister Sergei Ling to visit the scene and hospitals where victims were being treated, said the tragedy was unavoidable.

"They did everything they could - the police boys who tried to stop the flow died," he said, requesting the tragedy not be made into a political issue. "Usually it [an accident] can be explained by something, here it is impossible to explain."

But one of the opposition groups that frequently protests against what they say are human and civil rights violations by Lukashenko's government was quick to criticize the authorities.

"How could city authorities that use battalions of police to disperse democratic rallies allow this stampede at Nemiga [metro station]?" the Belarus Youth Front said in a statement.

A city spokesman said 100 million rubles ($400 at the official exchange rate) would be given to each of the families of the dead and 30 million rubles to those of the injured. Coffins would be provided free. Witnesses who arrived at the scene soon after the disaster said police acted fast to send survivors to hospitals and piled dead bodies in buses. Pictures showed some stacked in a truck.

Within two hours, the underground passage was emptied and washed clean, with no traces of the stampede remaining.