The Interior Ministry said 59 people were injured, but nobody would say — or knew — how many more were trapped in the rubble of Lulu'at al-Khair, which housed shops and restaurants and was rented out as a hostel during pilgrimages.
"The rescue operations are still ongoing," Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told reporters late Thursday, about nine hours after the collapse. One medic said earlier that he heard cries and moans from inside the debris.
Talha al-Nizi, a Tunisian guide for pilgrims, said his group had just finished midday prayers and returned about 1:10 p.m. to their hotel adjacent to Lulu'at al-Khair, just 200 feet from the Grand Mosque, a focal point of the hajj pilgrimage.
"As I moved to step into my hotel, the whole building collapsed in front of my eyes. The whole street was full of dust," said al-Nizi, who used his mobile phone to capture video and still images of the collapse.
About 1,000 rescue workers, medics and police scrambled over and around the collapsed building. A special unit of the country's anti-terrorism force maintained security, keeping curious bystanders behind a red-and-white police ribbon and patrolling the scene. Six huge generators supported spotlights atop long poles.
"Fortunately the building was almost empty when it collapsed, because most of the residents were in the holy shrine at that time," civil defense Maj. Gen. Alwani, who did not provide his first name, told government-run Al-Ekhbariya television. "Most of the casualties were from the passers-by near the building."
Cranes and bulldozers removed large slabs of concrete, and jackhammers broke up smaller pieces to aid in the clearing of debris. Saad al-Toujeri, head of the kingdom's civil defense forces, said rescuers had lowered cameras and microphones to try to find survivors.
A government official, who did not identify himself, told Al-Ekhbariya that the 40-year-old building's foundations were cracked and weak. Neighboring buildings were evacuated as a precaution, the network reported.
The victims were believed to have come from several countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia. The dead included 11 men, eight women and one unidentified body, al-Turki said.