It was a wonder any of the 39 workers packed into the minivan had survived.
The entire left side had been torn away by a speeding bus, and was now propped up with a bamboo pole. Inside, blood-stained shoes and a crushed lunchbox spewing scarlet-tinted rice served as a chilling illustration of a normal workday that turned to tragedy before it even started.
At least 18 of the van’s occupants were killed and more than a dozen seriously injured, after they were struck head on by a bus in Svay Rieng province yesterday morning.
The workers had been travelling along National Road 1 near the border between Svay Tiep district and Kampong Ro district at about 6:20am when the incident occurred. District police said two construction workers were also injured in the collision.
Speaking from her hospital bed in Svay Rieng Provincial Hospital, Uk Sakhorn, 31, said she had been sitting in the front row alongside three others and the driver when the crash happened. Despite her obvious pain, Sakhorn said she was one of the least affected.
“I sat next to the passenger door and the bus hit the opposite side. I always sit in the same place, so I survived. It was very crowded. The driver was thrown out of the van,” she said. “I was one of the luckiest.”
According to Sakhorn, driver Pov Sopheak, 30, was among the dead.
The workers had been travelling to shifts in five factories located in the Tai Seng Bavet Special Economic Zone, three of which were identified as Kingmaker, Elite and Eastern Industrial. Workers from two construction companies were also aboard the minivan.
Hours after the collision, witnesses spoke from the scene, where blood-stained clothing and personal items lay strewn around, and where no measures had been taken to prevent access to the wreckage.
Many of those who spoke to the Post asked for their names not to be disclosed for fear of trouble from authorities. One witness, Pon Cheum, who helped pull three people from the wreckage, spoke of the desperate situation he encountered.
“The three were badly injured. There is no hope they will survive. They were injured in the head, leg, hands and all over the body,” he said.
Another, aged 37, said he was sitting about 30 metres from the scene when the crash happened. He heard a loud smash and then rushed to respond to calls for help.
“I saw about six victims [who had been thrown] outside of the van, and others were stuck inside it. I used a bamboo stick get help the victims out,” he said. “I pulled the dead bodies from the van. I was very shocked but tried to help as much as I could.”
According to Svay Tiep district police chief Keo Sophorn, 15 people died at the scene, while three more died on the way to Phnom Penh for treatment. However, union official Cham Samnang of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers said he personally counted 21 dead.
“It is the biggest ever accident to happen in my province,” said Svay Rieng Provincial Governor Chieng Am. “I think the number of deaths will increase, as it is hopeless for those in critical condition.”
The bus, which was carrying four passengers from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Phnom Penh, reportedly pulled out to pass a sedan and reached such speed that the minivan was left mangled.
According to one witness, the van was “travelling slowly because there were many passengers”.
Six ambulances arrived on the scene about 20 minutes after the incident, according to witnesses, who said the bus driver was initially trapped because his leg was pinned. He was helped from his seat by his passengers, who attempted to conceal his identity to avoid reprisals from local villagers.
“The Vietnamese passengers helped to get the driver from his seat, and he changed his uniform so that the villagers would not recognise him,” one witness said.
However, three villagers entered the bus and dragged him out, hitting him in the face and causing facial injuries. Dozens more villagers then arrived and began to attack him, but local police appeared and rescued him from the mob.
“Without intervention from the police, the driver would have been beaten to death,” the witness explained.
Speaking at the scene, a police officer, who was not authorised to speak about the incident to the media, confirmed that account.
“The bus driver was hit and our police officers rescued him,” he said. “The villagers also hit police.”
The officer said the driver, who was named by district police as 43-year-old Le Vang Phing, was taken to Svay Tiep district police station. He is due to appear at Svay Rieng Provincial Court today, according to provincial traffic police chief Uch Saron.
Duong Ratha, managing director of SH Transport, which owns the bus, said that his company was working with insurance firm Caminco and local police in dealing with the incident.
“I am really sorry for this tragedy,” he said in an interview. “The insurance firm will be coordinating with police to resolve the issue with the families.”
SH Transport, which runs three times per day from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, was established in 2003.
While some of the most seriously injured were rushed to Phnom Penh for treatment, others were taken to Svay Rieng Provincial Hospital, where observers were critical of the lack of necessary care available.
“They obviously very much need additional assistance, in a good hospital in Phnom Penh,” said Solidarity Center country director Dave Welsh. “We’re being told there are no ambulances here.”
Moments later, Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An arrived in a convoy of 15 SUVs to distribute money from herself and other government officials to some of the victims.
But while local media packed the already crowded emergency ward to capture her handing out hundreds of dollars to the families of the dead and wounded, still no ambulances arrived.
“Ambulances are a lot more important than money right now,” said Welsh. “It’s completely disgusting.”
According to Welsh, authorities should accept full liability for the incident.
“The Labour Law in Cambodia does say that there is liability for factories and for the government; this should be categorised as a workplace accident,” he said.
“[It’s] completely unacceptable in an industry that generates $6 billion a year and can’t guarantee the safety of the workers.”
Speaking yesterday, Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Suor said ministry officials had been sent to accompany the bodies of victims to the homes of their families, and pledged assistance to the injured.
“If victims are unable to work, we will feed him or her for the rest of their life. The children of the dead victims will be supported, too,” he said.
Yesterday’s accident is just the latest in a string of grim object lessons of the increasing peril garment workers face in simply getting to work.
A report released in February by the Ministry of Labour’s National Social Security Fund stated that 73 workers died on their way to work in 2014 – six more than the previous year.