A Phnom Penh nightclub was swept by its second fatal fire in as many years on Monday night, with early blame falling on an electrical malfunction, which one fire safety expert called the leading cause of blazes in the Kingdom.
Monday’s fire comes less than two weeks after two others broke out just hours apart at a Phnom Penh garment factory and a local bank branch, with faulty wiring believed to have played a role in both. Initial investigations into Monday’s conflagration at the nightclub have pointed to an electrical fault causing the fire that killed three teenagers and two members of staff, with flammable decor reportedly facilitating the rapid spread of the blaze.
According to Phnom Penh municipal deputy police chief Neth Vantha, who is responsible for fire investigations, initial witness testimony suggests the blaze at the Key Club in Meanchey district’s Chak Angre Krom commune initially began on the first floor and quickly reached the ground floor by engulfing cloth used to decorate walls.
“These are just the claims of the victims and witnesses who were at the incident; the facts have not been revealed yet because we have not received the report from expert investigators,” Vantha said.
One witness, Kong Narin, 17, was with three of the victims when the blaze struck.
According to Narin, her friends had gone to the toilet when smoke and flames began to fill the room she was in, forcing her to join other guests in fleeing the building.
“I wanted to run into the bathroom to call my three friends, but the flames were already high and strong,” she said. “Outside the club, I told a staff member that my three friends were in the bathroom, but he told me the fire was too strong and no one dared to go back in.”
The blaze reportedly struck at about 8:30pm, and was finally extinguished two hours later.
The five killed, all women, were yesterday identified as club employees Ros Thavry, 28 and Hok Sokleng, 44, as well as guests Ke Liya, 16; Som Sresros, 17; and Sao Mesa, 18.
Male club employees Khum Channuth, 25, and Di Lida, 32, both sustained serious injuries.
This is the second deadly fire to engulf the club in less than two years, after a blaze on November 6, 2013, left three people dead, said landlord Taing Eng, 63, including the wife and sister-in-law of club operator Phon Buntheon.
Bunthoen, who still operates the business, could not be reached yesterday.
The building’s wiring was replaced after the 2013 fire, which had been caused by welding sparks falling on a couch, Eng added.
However, the “number-one cause” of fires in the Kingdom remains electrical malfunctions, said Paul Hurford, managing director of FireSafe, a private company providing fire-fighting services, equipment and training here.
According to Hurford, fire safety standards in Cambodia remain “very poor”. “Some businesses have obligations to buying groups or to customers to achieve international standards, but within the country, there are no set standards,” he said.
Hurford said that while fire legislation passed two years ago is a “good start” toward the implementation of building and fire codes, “on its own, it is not overly effective” without more detailed regulations.
Yet according to Hurford, attempting to rush that implementation – a process he warns will take years to be carried out effectively – would be unwise.
“In terms of saving lives and protecting property, you want it to be done as quickly as possible, but it’s got to be done right,” he said.
Speaking at the morgue at Stung Meanchey pagoda yesterday, Ouch Rany, the grandmother of Ke Liya, said the teenagers were co-workers from the nearby Avakas Mineral Water factory in Prek Rang village celebrating Sao Mesa’s being offered a new job in a garment factory.
“Normally, my granddaughter would not be able to go to drink in a club like that because our family is poor, so when she asked me for permission, I agreed,” she said. “I feel so sorry for my granddaughter, because she lost her mother when she was 5 years old and was never afforded time for fun,” she said.
Mesa’s father, Som Ban, told a similar story, saying he had allowed his daughter to go to the party because he felt she deserved to celebrate passing the exam for her new job. But at about 10pm, Narin came to tell him about the fire that she had escaped but his daughter had not.
“I rode with other villagers to the site to find their bodies, but when we arrived, the authorities had already taken the bodies to the pagoda,” he said.
Ban vowed to take legal action against club owner Buntheon once the funerals of his daughter and friends were over.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHARLES PARKINSON