Hundreds died and hundreds more were injured last night in a stampede on Diamond Island’s north bridge, bringing a tragic close to the final day of water festival celebrations in Phnom Penh.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced via video conference at 2:30am that 339 people had been confirmed dead and 329 injured.
“With this miserable event, I would like to share my condolences with my compatriots and the family members of the victims,” he said.
“This needs to be investigated more.”
“This is the biggest tragedy since the Pol Pot regime,” he said, adding that Cambodia would hold a national day of mourning on Thursday and that a committee would be set up to investigate the incident.
The cause of the stampede has not yet been confirmed, but Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said it happened because “one million people”, many of whom were leaving the island, became “scared of something.”
Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth also could not confirm the series of events that led to the disaster.
“People were afraid and began to trample each other and some jumped into the river,” he said at the scene.
Bedlam ensued as the frenzied crowd began to push its way off the bridge, causing a jam that made it nearly impossible to breathe, according to witnesses.
With no other escape route, hundreds of people began jumping off the suspension bridge.
Sirens started to awaken city residents minutes later as ambulances, police cars and emergency vehicles began rushing to the scene, where they had to clear away the crowd before reaching victims.
Boats were called in to pull people out of the water and ferry others across the narrow Bassac River to the shore in front of the Royal Palace, where emergency workers fought through the crowd of frantic onlookers to care for the injured.
The bodies of victims were taken away in ambulances, flat-bed trucks and motor-bikes to area hospitals as police struggled to clear away the crowd by shouting, pushing and beating them back with their belts.
As the scene cleared, many bodies remained on the road, which was littered with shoes, shirts, pants and other objects dropped in the mayhem. Pieces of cardboard were placed over the heads of those obviously dead, while bystanders fanned people thought to be still alive.
Area hospitals confirmed that hundreds were either dead on arrival or died soon after, with witnesses on hand giving various explanations for the initial cause of the stampede and the actual cause of deaths.
A doctor at Calmette hospital, who declined to give his name, said after a preliminary assessment the principal causes of death among the victims he had examined were suffocation and electrocution.
Ouk Sokhhoeun, 21, was at the scene with his sister, 23-year-old Ouk Srey Mom, who was left unconscious and taken to Calmette hospital, said that military police started firing water cannons into the crowd on the bridge after the stampede had already caused scores of people to fall unconscious.
He said the water caused many people on the bridge to receive electric shocks from the cables lighting the bridge, at which point “some police also received electric shocks”.