Sweltering pilgrims pray for water -- and get a storm

21st August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims sweltered for hours in baking heat awaiting Pope Benedict XVI -- before the heavens opened and a storm lashed the vast esplanade as the pontiff was speaking.

The pope interrupted his speech for at least 20 minutes as the wind lashed the stage, blowing off his skullcap and leaving his vestments flapping.

The pope, his white hair blown into disarray, gripped a copy of his sodden speech, as an assistant tried to shelter the 84-year-old pontiff with a large white umbrella, which was shaking in the strong wind.

A sea of pilgrims, by some reports more than a million, tried to take shelter under umbrellas, tarpaulins or whatever they could find. Others danced in the rain and the vast majority with no shelter just got wet.

When the rain eased, the pope said to cheers: "Thank you for your joy and endurance. Your strength is greater than the rain.

"The Lord with the rain has given us many blessings. In this too you are an example."

He then left the stage to change and returned wearing a golden mitre, draped in a golden cloak and clutching a golden crucifix to continue the service.

Firefighters checked the stage after the storm before the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics returned.

The pope was seated on a large white throne on a vast white, wave-shaped stage, protected by an umbrella and beneath a giant parasol "tree", made of interwoven golden rods when the deluge broke.

"We lived through the storm, not with fear, not for nothing, it was worth it, it happens once in a lifetime," said Lorena Caceres, a 23-year-old student.

The pilgrims are supposed to spend the night in the open air at the base, eight kilometres (five miles) southwest of Madrid, where Benedict is to celebrate the closing mass of the August 16-21 youth festival on Sunday morning.

Before the storm, medical services struggled to cope as hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims waited for hours in the dusty esplanade -- the size of 48 football fields -- in temperatures of 39 C (102 F).

Emergency services said they had attended to almost 900 people by early evening, mostly for dizziness, fainting and heatstroke.

"Water, Water, Water!" shouted dozens of pilgrims to firemen who were spraying the tiny field hospital.

"Right now we're overwhelmed," said one harassed worker at the hospital at the edge of the esplanade, where hundreds of weary pilgrims were waiting for treatment.

"Watch out, make way!" shouted police officers who were carrying a young woman to the hospital who had fainted.

Another pilgrim arrived trembling, in tears and wiping off sweat, and was immediately comforted by volunteers. Only the most serious were admitted to the hospital.

Out on the esplanade, many young people suffering from the heat were treated on the ground in the shade of emergency vehicles or portable toilets.

"I saw dozens and dozens of sick people when I arrived this afternoon," said Cesar Coello, a volunteer from the United States.

Firefighters passed through the alleyways and sprayed the pilgrims, but for many it was not enough.

Camila Rossi, an Italian student, was sitting with hundreds of others in an alleyway intended as an emergency exit.

"I came here to see the pope but there is no more space in zone C2 where we were supposed to be," she said.

Like many others, she and her group were covered by a blue plastic tarpaulin to try and escape the burning August sun.

"Excuse me, I've got to sit down, I don't feel well," she said, as she took cover under the tarpaulin.

Others propped up beach parasols, umbrellas, flags and even blankets to try to fend off the punishing August sun in the rock festival-style atmosphere.

Confined to the zones to which they had been assigned, most lay down on a simple groundsheet, unable to move around the base.

The crowd -- from 193 countries -- waved flags and chanted "Long Live the Pope" and a 200-strong volunteer choir and orchestra delivered the World Youth Day anthem as the pope arrived at the vast stage.

© 2011 AFP

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