At least 18 women and children were killed and more than a dozen people seriously hurt in a stampede when a makeshift rope bridge collapsed at a Hindu festival in eastern India, police said.
The incident in the city of Patna, near the holy Ganges river, occurred late Monday as thousands of devotees rushed to offer prayers to the setting sun as part of the Hindu ritual of Chhath.
Officials said large crowds were also expected at sunrise on Tuesday, despite the tragedy caused by the latest stampede to afflict a religious event in India.
Groups of stunned people, some sobbing and wailing, gathered in the night outside the Patna Medical College and Hospital where many of the victims were ferried.
Ambulances with sirens wailing 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 was likely to rise as several other devotees were reported missing at the site.
The low-slung rope and bamboo bridge had been erected to ferry 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 AFP.
Power was lost at the scene when the bridge collapsed, complicating the rescue operation, city administrator Sanjay Kumar Singh said.
"When the bridge collapsed, power cables strung on it snapped and lights went off, and in the darkness people scrambled which triggered the stampede," he said.
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.
"The people thought the bridge was strong enough to bear their weight. But unfortunately it could not," one male witness said.
The festival of Chhath is celebrated across India and the number of devotees was likely to swell at dawn on Tuesday when many more worshippers are expected to throng rivers to offer prayers to the rising sun.
Stampedes are all too common 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 2011 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.