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The mourning after

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Questions have been raised about the government’s disaster preparedness in the wake of a stampede on Monday night that killed more than 350 people and injured as many as twice that number.

It remains unclear what triggered the disaster, but Information Minister Khieu Kanharith suggested that rumours that the bridge was unstable sent panicked revellers shoving their way through the crowd.

“So panic started. It was too crowded and they had nowhere to run,” Khieu Kanharith said.

Many of the deaths were caused by suffocation and internal injuries, he said.

Khieu Kanharith said yesterday that the government had established a special “investigation subcommittee” made up of police and officials from the Ministry of Justice to probe the causes of the tragedy. The authorities have also put out radio appeals to the public for assistance.

“We are calling on all witnesses to come to testify,” he said, though he did not indicate when the inquiry would conclude.
However, a regional rights group cast doubt on the government’s assessment, saying that it should have been better prepared to react to the crisis.

In a statement yesterday, the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission called on the government to “thoroughly investigate” the causes of the stampede and the official response, accusing the government of having failed to “control and limit the damage” that broke out when the human crush on the bridge began.

“It is clear … that Phnom Penh was unprepared for any large-scale disaster,” AHRC said.

It also cited eyewitness reports that the military sprayed water on the crowd during the stampede, causing electric shocks from the lights on the bridge. It said the government should investigate the possibility that some of the deaths were the result of electrocution and make the necessary restitution.

Cheng Sony, 20, a fruit seller from Prey Veng, sustained severe internal injuries but survived the stampede.

He told The Post that he witnessed several people receive electric shocks as the suspension bridge swayed and wires from the lighting system began to fray.

“Many people were on the bridge as it began to shake and cut the electrical wires. When people touched the cables, they were electrocuted,” he said.

The government has dismissed such reports as rumours, and doctors who examined the dead have said they saw no evidence of death by electrocution.

A doctor at Calmette Hospital who declined to be named said the main cause of death among the victims he examined was respiratory distress from a lack of oxygen.
“We cannot tell exactly the cause of death, but we can imagine what happens when so many people are on top of each other.”

Dr Say Seng Ly, director of the Cambodian-Russian Friendship Hospital, identified the principal cause of death as head and body trauma, as well as suffocation, adding that he saw no signs of death by electrocution.

Dr G Keith Skill, a senior consultant on crowd management for the British-based consultancy group G4S, said that while the exact details of events might not be known, the results follow a familiar pattern.

“While it is too early to know the exact circumstances of the incident, it appears that once again fundamental principles of crowd safety may well have been ignored,” he said.
Skill said the bridge was obviously not equipped to handle the level of traffic attempting to reach Diamond Island.

“In any situation involving large numbers of people, those responsible must conduct a detailed evaluation on the venue and determine its optimum capacity; they must carefully control the rates of ingress, and they must manage the crowd’s movements inside the venue.

“Understanding crowd dynamics is central to the safe management of an event. Normally there are a number of simple and cost-effective measures that can be implemented by event organisers which can often mean the difference between a successful event and a disaster.”

Families friends and the injured search for news

Concerned relatives swamped Phnom Penh’s main hospitals yesterday, hoping for any news about relatives lost or injured in last night’s the stampede.

At Calmette Hospital, hundreds of frantic relatives scoured a makeshift morgue set up at the rear of the hospital, while others consulted notice boards where dozens of photos of the victims were posted.

Onlookers covered their mouths and stood on the tips of their toes to get a glimpse of the rows of bodies covered in white sheets. Some burst into sobs and averted their eyes. Inside the hospital, patients could be seen resting on mats lining the corridors.

While the grisly task of identifying the victims was carried out, survivors shared fearful stories of how and when the lethal crush occurred.
“I was stuck in the middle of the bridge among nearly 1,000 people on the bridge for about two hours,” said Loeung, a young woman from Svay Rieng province whose 24-year-old sister was crushed by the panicking crowd.

“We had a lot of difficulty breathing and we couldn’t move, and our group had scattered on the bridge.”

She said her sister, a factory worker from Sen Sok district, was knocked out by an electric shock from the bridge railing and then was trampled by the panicking crowds.

“I saw she was about one metre from me, and I tried to help,” she said from her makeshift bed at the hospital.

Chan Chhai Reoun, 25, a law student from Cambodia Mekong University, passed out during the stampede and awoke to find himself in a trailer with dead bodies being ferried from the site. Two of the three friends he was with also died in the crush.

“We couldn’t run because it was so crowded,” he recalled. “It was too crowded to even breathe – that’s why some people died.”

Chheng Sony, a 20-year-old from Prey Veng province who came to Phnom Penh to sell fruit during the festival, was in the middle of the bridge during the stampede and recalled the confusion that reigned.

“There were too many people coming from different directions and that made chaos. People weren’t able to breathe,” he said.

Beyond capacity

Dr Thou Sophany, a doctor at Calmette Hospital, confirmed 138 people arrived dead yesterday morning, and a further one died on arrival.

Dr Chhauoy Meng, who headed up the hospital’s response to the event, said dealing with the corpses had stretched the hospital’s resources “beyond our capacity”, but insisted there was enough space to care for survivors of Monday’s tragedy.

Chhauoy Meng said the incident was unprecedented in its scale. The next largest disaster in memory, he said, was a Vietnam Airlines plane that crashed at Phnom Penh International Airport in 1997, killing 65 people.

As of noon, around 40 bodies were yet to be identified, while relatives and friends of the deceased clamoured around several tables where government officials signed forms authorising a 5 million-riel (US$1,250) government compensation payment.

Several large military flatbed lorries pulled through the north entrance of the hospital, which officials said would be used to transport corpses back to the provinces.

A similarly grisly scene prevailed yesterday at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, where the hospital’s director, Dr Say Seng Ly, said 139 dead bodies arrived in the wake of the stampede. A further death was recorded yesterday morning, he added.

Lim Huy, a doctor and service quality monitor with GRET, a health group attached to the hospital, said many of the victims were between 15 and 25, most of them from out of town.

“I think most of the people were from other provinces. People from Phnom Penh knew that the bridge was crowded and unsafe,” he said.

He added that no foreigners were recorded as being among the dead or injured.

Mam Daro, an officer with the Cambodian Red Cross, said the organisation was active at each hospital, helping families match lost relatives with the bodies in the hospital’s possession.

He added that the Red Cross had not yet tracked down any of the missing persons.

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