Cause of deadly Cambodia stampede still unknown
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - At the bridge where investigators poked though the debris of a disaster -- abandoned flip-flops and sneakers, water bottles, pieces of sugar cane -- Chea Chan lit a Buddhist memorial offering of incense, coconut and lotus flowers, and wept.
The 28-year-old had tried to grab his younger brother during the riverside stampede that left at least 378 dead Monday night, but he was pushed against the support poles of the narrow suspension bridge. His little brother fell down and immediately was crushed under four or five other falling people.
He found his dead sibling at a local hospital, with a broken neck and crushed face. "I'm totally in shock," he said.
The victims were trampled when a crowd celebrating a holiday panicked for reasons that remained unknown Tuesday. The prime minister's special adviser, Om Yentieng, denied reports that it was sparked by a mass food poisoning, or by people being electrocuted by lighting cables.
Don Saron, 26, said she was walking across the bridge when people began shouting that it was going to collapse. She tripped and felt the crowds trampling over her face and chest.
"People were just walking here and there and all of sudden, people started to run," she said as she awaited treatment Tuesday at Calmette Hospital. She grimaced in pain as she leaned against a gurney on which she had just woken up nearly 20 hours after being caught in the stampede.
"I shouldn't have been there. Why did I come to this festival, this ceremony?" she said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen described the stampede on Koh Pich -- Diamond Island -- as the biggest tragedy since the communist Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, which left an estimated 1.7 million people dead in the late 1970s.
He declared Thursday a day of national mourning.
City police chief Touch Naroth said investigators were still trying to determine the cause but suggested that the bridge's small size may have contributed to the tragedy. "This is a lesson for us," he said on state TV.
State television showed horrific footage of the stampede, with thousands of twisted bodies -- both dead and alive -- piled atop each other, some screaming for help and grasping for hands as rescuers struggled to pull limp bodies out of the pile. Other rescuers fanned them with cardboard boxes.
On Tuesday, crowds jammed the sidewalk outside Calmette Hospital, looking for familiar faces in photos posted of unidentified victims.
Survivors recounted desperate struggles on the bridge to the island in one of the rivers running past Phnom Penh, where a huge crowd had come to celebrate the last night of a three-day holiday marking the end of rainy season. As many as 2 million people are believed to have come to the capital, and many sought to grab a final few hours of fun at a concert following the traditional boat races.
The crush of people was intense. A witness, soft drink vendor So Cheata, said about 10 people suddenly fell unconscious. Panic surged through the crowd, which pushed onto the gaily lit yellow-and-grey bridge, which was already packed with people.
Imran, an events planner from Sri Lanka who asked not to use his last name for fear of angering Cambodian clients, said he pulled at least 12 bodies from the crush. People began handing him limp children as young as 5 or 6, and bodies -- dead or unconscious -- covered so much of the ground in front of his stand that people had to walk over them.
Some victims complained of being electrocuted, Imran said, possibly from the wiring for the lights on the bridge, though it was unclear if the electricity had killed people or merely shocked them.
At least 755 people were injured, but government spokesman Phay Siphan said that number and the death toll could rise. Authorities said there were no foreigners among the dead or injured.
Rescuers were overwhelmed as they had to quickly pick out the dead from the living, and try to help the survivors.
"I've never come across something with such mass casualties ... in such a small area," said Paul Hurford, an Australian firefighter who runs a charity training firefighters in Cambodia and was among those called to help. "This was a devastating situation, no matter how you look at it."
Imran complained of a slow and confused response from police and medical services. He said that at one point when the cityside part of the bridge was still choked with victims, military police yelled through loudspeakers that the bridge was on fire. Some police officers also carried away unconscious victims with their heads banging against the pavement, he said.
Hun Sen ordered an investigation into the disaster and said the government would pay the families of each dead victim 5 million riel ($1,250) for funeral expenses and provide 1 million riel ($250) for each injured person.
Located on the Tonle Bassac river in southeastern Phnom Penh, Koh Pich is a former slum community that was handed over in 2006 to a company controlled by Pung Khiav Se, a tycoon connected to Hun Sen. The development, budgeted at hundreds of millions of dollars, is planned to have high-rise buildings, including what is supposed to be Asia's tallest skyscraper. It is currently much more modest, with cafes, amusement park rides and other structures.
Charles Vann, a spokesman for Pung Khiav Se, called the stampede "an accident, nothing more than an accident."
"This is no one's fault," he said. "No one could have expected this to happen."