India on Tuesday launched a probe into a stampede which killed 18 women and children when a makeshift bridge collapsed at a Hindu festival, as devotees returned to pray at the scene of tragedy. The incident in the eastern city of Patna, near the holy Ganges river, occurred late on Monday as tens of thousands of worshippers rushed to offer prayers to the setting sun as part of the Hindu ritual of Chhath. Despite the disaster, large crowds again gathered at the site before sunrise to pray as part of the festival schedule, offering fruits to the gods, lighting candles and bathing in the sacred water. Along the muddy riverbank, the remains of the rope and bamboo bridge were still in place and the ground was scattered with discarded clothes, home-made sweet offerings and abandoned shoes. “Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has ordered a probe,” Bihar state home secretary Amir Subhani told reporters. “I visited the site last night and will go there again to talk to witness, police and others.” Groups of stunned people, some sobbing and wailing, waited through the night outside the Patna Medical College and Hospital where many of the victims were taken. At least a dozen people were seriously injured. “People were in so much panic after the stampede that they threw away their baskets full of offerings and left there to save their lives,” Akhilesh Prasad, a tea vendor at a nearby lane, told local reporters. Ambulances with sirens wailing had tried to navigate the choked streets, as whistle-blowing police struggled to impose order. At least one girl was carried off in a man’s arms, apparently lifeless, and other children looked lost in the melee after the stampede. Patna police superintendent Jayant Kant said that a total of 18 people were confirmed dead – 10 women and eight children – but that the toll could still rise as several other devotees were reported missing. The low-slung rope and bamboo bridge had been erected to carry pilgrims over rough terrain en route to the Ganges, and gave way under the crush of the crowd, Kant said. Most of the casualties were thought to have been caused by the stampede and not the collapse of the temporary bridge. “Bodies of the 18 people killed in the stampede have been sent to the hospital for autopsies,” Kant told reporters. Power was lost at the scene when the bridge fell down, complicating the rescue operation. Patna is capital of the eastern Indian state of Bihar, where the annual festival dedicated to the Hindu sun god Surya is particularly popular. An estimated 400,000 devotees thronged up to 65 riverside locations specially prepared by Bihar authorities to cater to worshippers travelling to the Ganges, which is revered by Hindus. Around 50,000 people were present at Adalat Ganj, one of the worship locations in Patna, when the bridge collapsed, officials said. Stampedes are a regular risk at religious events in India, where policing and crowd control are often inadequate. In September, in the state of Jharkhand adjacent to Bihar, a crush at a religious celebration killed nine people, eight of them women. Prior to that, more than 100 people died in January last year in the southern state of Kerala when panic spread among worshippers crossing mountainous terrain in the dark to visit a shrine. The worst recent incident was in October 2008 when around 220 people died near a temple inside a famous fort in the northern city of Jodhpur.