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Fire destroys 'cultural heart'

Fire destroys 'cultural heart'

The capital's Bassac Theater was destroyed in a terrible fire on Tuesday which a

minister described as the loss of "the heart of the nation's

culture."

Some of the thousands who gathered to watch the flames consume

the Kingdom's biggest playhouse openly wept.

The fire began in the roof,

which eventually came crashing down, leaving the theater as just a charred

skeleton of four walls filled with a tangle of debris.

Culture Minister

told reporters at the scene: "I feel very sorry about the theater and I can

hardly say a word. I feel like I lost my baby which was just born.

"It

[the theater] is the heart of our nation's culture."

The theater was

built in the late 60s and was designed by one of the Kingdom's most famous

architects, Vann Molyvan. He paced up and down outside his blazing building and

was too upset to talk to reporters.

Witnesses said the fire started at

approximately 10.45 am and it took firemen using grossly inadequate equipment

six hours to put out. Two nearby residents were hurt helping the firefighters

tackle the blaze.

Authorities have yet to determine the cause but

witnesses said it was accidentally started by Vietnamese laborers working for a

French construction company which had a contract carry out repairs.

The

workers were welding the iron ceiling which contained kapok fiber as insulation,

they said.

Witnesses said police shot in the air to stop the workers

fleeing the scene.

Police later said they were holding nine of the

laborers and two French managers for questioning.

Hang Soth, director of

the theater said "I think the company must be held responsible [for the damage]

because it hired the workers."

Five fire engines supported by four

water-delivery trucks were used to put out the blaze.

They were mostly

Soviet-made, old and some of the hoses had tears in them, making them virtually

useless. There was also a brand new Japanese-made fire truck, but it took the

firemen almost 10 minutes to know how to turn on the tap while the flames kept

spreading.

Nearby residents tried hard to help save the building but

there was little they could do.

Khoeun Rina, 33, who performed classical

dance on the Bassac's stage for 14 years was horrified by the destruction. She

said: "The theater has so much meaning in my life. I'm feeling like my soul has

gone away from my body when the theater is caught up in the flame like this."

And classical dance teacher An Pancha said: "I'm a professional and I

need this theater. Now it has burnt down it seems as if my [fine arts]

certificate has been burnt too. I want to cry."

He was about to leave a

meeting at the theater when the fire broke out. He said he and his colleagues

ferried buckets of water upstairs in a vain effort to stem the flames. He said

the first fire engine took 30 minutes to arrive after the brigade was alerted

over the police radio.

Theater staff and residents also complained that

the situation might have not deteriorated if firefighters had proper training in

how to tackle the blaze.

"The firefighters were just panicking and

shouting back and forth. They have no skill at all.

"The fire was

between iron boards which made up the ceiling and the roof. I told the firemen

to fire their guns to knock the ceiling out of the way so that they could spray

water directly on the flames. But they said 'no, no we don't have the orders to

do that,' " said 22-year-old Bo Bulen who lives behind the theater.

"It's a very great shame. The only big theater we have now is gone," he

said.

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