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Death toll surges in island disaster

Death toll surges in island disaster

Photo by: Heng Chivoan
A Buddhist monk stands at the foot of Diamond Island bridge in Phnom Penh yesterday, the site where 456 people died on the final day of Cambodia's annual water festival.

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The death toll from Monday’s tragic bridge stampede has leapt to 456, according to official figures released yesterday, eclipsing earlier estimates that put the number of dead at around 350.

In a statement announcing the figures, Ith Sam Heng, Minister of Social Affairs and the chairman of the government’s committee investigating the cause of the incident, stated that the toll spiked after 17 provinces reported their casualty numbers to the authorities.

“After each province reported to the subcommittee, the total number is 456 now,” said Ith Samheng.

“Some bodies were transported home straight away and some injured people died at home,” he said, explaining the increased toll. “This is a shocking incident for Cambodia.”

Hundreds of people were crushed and suffocated to death on Monday night when crowds attending the annual Water Festival became trapped on a narrow suspension bridge, in one of the country’s worst peacetime losses of life.

A preliminary death toll issued on Tuesday put the number of deaths at 351 and those injured at 395. Unconfirmed reports on Tuesday also put the number of injured as high as 755.

Peter Li, an emergency response worker with Side by Side International, a Japan-based NGO, said it would be several more days before the total toll was known, saying more bodies could well float up from the river under the bridge.

Phnom Penh police chief Touch Naruth confirmed two more victims died yesterday from injuries sustained in the crush.

No Westerners were reported killed or injured in the tragedy, though at least eight Vietnamese nationals were among the dead, according to a report in Vietnam’s state media. An additional eight others were injured, the report said, and five remain unaccounted for.

In its wake, questions have been raised about the government’s handling of the affair, with critics arguing poor planning and a lack of effective crowd control led to the grisly incident.
Government investigators announced yesterday that the stampede was likely caused by the swaying of the Diamond Island suspension bridge under the weight of thousands of Water Festival revellers, according to a report televised yesterday on Bayon TV.

“The deaths happened because the bridge was overcrowded and there was panic that the bridge was collapsing because it is hung by cables and it was swaying,” said Prum Sokha, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and a member of the disaster committee. “The people had nowhere to run.”

The report downplayed eyewitness accounts the stampede was triggered by crowd antics, bad electrical wiring or the spraying of the crowd with water.

Touch Samnang, project manager of the Diamond Island development, said he had not received any official information on the government’s findings. He affirmed that the bridge was structurally sound, but said he would comply with any directives issued as a result of the report.

“If we are ordered to move the bridge, we will respect the government’s decision and we will move it as ordered,” he said.

Yesterday, rubbish collectors picked their way across the now-notorious bridge, removing the coloured detritus – sunglasses, sandals and clothing – that had littered it since Monday’s disaster.

Meanwhile, hospitals continued to treat survivors of the stampede, with officials saying the situation was nearly back to normal.

Minister of Health Mam Bunheng said that as of yesterday, most bodies had been repatriated to their home provinces, while the majority of the injured had been discharged.
“We are continuing to treat the severely injured people,” Mam Bun Heng said.

No end in sight

But some family members remain in limbo, frantically making the rounds of the city’s hospitals in a vain search for lost relatives.
“I’ve left one hospital and headed to other hospitals and to pagodas but have found nothing,” said 48-year-old Mao Mon, from Prey Veng province, searching for his 22-year-old niece at Calmette Hospital.

“I’ve called her phone number but there is no ringing at all.” More of her relatives plan to come to Phnom Penh today, he said, in a bid to widen the search.

Sean Chen, 30, from Kampot, was seeking news of his sister, 27-year-old Sean Kakda, and her husband Vin, who disappeared on Monday. Arriving at Calmette, Sean Chen said he was becoming desperate in his search for the missing pair.

“I’m very worried about their safety because I don’t see their names on the lists and there is no information from their friends,” he said. “I don’t know whether they are among the victims there or not.”

Seang Sothea, a doctor at Calmette, said no bodies remained at the hospital for collection as of yesterday, despite the initial shortage of coffins to accommodate the high numbers of dead.

Government offices will be closed today for a national day of mourning for the victims of the disaster. Prime Minister Hun Sen will visit the site of the accident to pay his respects this morning, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will hold a separate Buddhist ceremony in the afternoon. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP, THET SAMBATH, BUTH REAKSMEY KONGKEA AND THOMAS MILLER


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