A fire at a Svay Rieng province karaoke club in the early hours of yesterday morning left five people dead and one seriously injured. It was a tragic incident experts say once again points to a lack of building safety.
Bavet town deputy police chief Kao Horn, who has been investigating the blaze, said he received calls about the fire at the Sdar Restaurant and KTV at about 3:20am.
While there were no customers in the building, a number of staff working night shifts were still inside.
According to Horn, it took two fire trucks about four hours to extinguish the blaze.
The bodies of four men and one woman – Prak Loy, 19; Prak Teng, 18; Mom Ratha, 34; Keb Phem, 23; and Heng Saran, 26 – were found amid the wreckage.
“The bodies of the dead victims were found in a pile of ash in the KTV room of the club. Their bodies were completely burnt and looked like charcoal,” he said.
Another member of staff, 30-year-old Mao Manith, survived the fire, but remained in serious condition yesterday in Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital.
Speaking from his hospital bed, where he was surrounded by loved ones, Manith described the terrifying moment he realised that his only chance of survival was to run through the raging flames.
“When all the guests left, my colleagues and I stayed to put away the musical instruments before going home. When we opened the door, we walked downstairs and suddenly we saw the flames burning from a karaoke room,” he said. “We ran back upstairs to shout for help. We couldn’t hear any fire alarm.”
With the fire spreading rapidly, and with no other escape from the club, Manith and Loy headed back downstairs and ran through the flames and out of the building.
But, according to Manith, Loy decided to turn back to rescue his younger brother, 18-year-old Teng, who was still trapped upstairs.
“That’s the last time I saw him.… I did not see them come back,” he said. “If he didn’t turn back to help his brother, maybe he would have survived.”
Manith, whose body was covered in bandages concealing his serious burns, said he only understood the reality of what had happened when he woke up in the hospital, and his wife told him of the deaths.
“I am still in pain. My eyes hurt because of the blast,” he said, as he administered eye drops.
Manith’s medical costs are being funded by the Ministry of Labour’s National Social Security Fund (NSSF), which is also giving money to the families of the deceased, and covering the cost of the funerals.
“The five dead victims have wives and children, and they also had legitimate wedding certificates, so the [NSSF] will offer 70 per cent of their salary to their wives and children every month,” said NSSF deputy director Sum Sophorn.
“They can spend the money on supporting their living costs and their children’s education until their children reach 18 or 21 years old” depending on whether they go to university, he added.
The club’s owner could not be reached yesterday.
Horn, the deputy police chief, said the cause of the fire was not being viewed as suspicious. Preliminary investigations, he explained, suggested it was the result of an “electric malfunction”.
The fatal fire came just four months after a blaze in a popular Siem Reap nightclub, attributed to faulty electrical wiring, killed four Cambodians and one Australian.
Cambodia-based architect Don Rennie said the latest incident raises further concerns about inadequate building safety.
“When people die inside a building, it’s generally due to a lack of proper exiting so people can get out,” he explained. “The minimum requirement [for any commercial building] is two fire exits … when you get to the exit door and you push on it, you should be in daylight.”
Rennie said a lack of building standards means that “architects, even if they have 20 years of experience, do not understand proper exiting”.
He added that poor installation of electrical wiring is a common cause of fires, and is propagated by a lack of government inspection.
Cambodia-based firefighting consultant Paul Hurford, whose firm Azisafe is helping to draft a code of practice to improve the Kingdom’s fire safety standards, said efforts are being made to improve the situation, with various codes and legislation – ranging from building safety to electrical safety – being penned.
“The government is being quite proactive,” he said. But, he added, it may still be some time before rules and guidelines are implemented.