Key Sokha was preparing dinner for her family at their home in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district on Thursday night when a chorus of shouts broke out nearby.
Rushing to the door, the 60-year-old was met by a flurry of neighbors desperately fleeing through the narrow alleyway toward National Road 2 to escape the flames that were engulfing homes behind hers in Chak Angre Loeu commune’s Prek Takong village.
“Everyone was shouting loudly, so I knew about the fire,” she said yesterday while waiting in line for aid packages being distributed by the Cambodian Red Cross. “When the fire started, we just ran for safety. My family is safe.”
The fire began at about 8:45 p.m. on Thursday and burned for some three hours before firefighters were able to bring it under control, gutting 55 homes and leaving 266 people homeless in Prek Takong and neighboring Prek Tanou village, said commune chief Keo Savoeun, who added that fire trucks had to be called from neighboring Kandal province to assist firefighters in Phnom Penh.
He said the firefighters were unable to save many homes because the road leading to the villages was too narrow, a claim reiterated by deputy district governor Dy Roth Khemrun. Both officials said authorities were considering widening the road to prevent a repeat of the catastrophe.
The two men differed, however, on what caused the fire, with Mr. Savoeun saying it was sparked by a faulty electrical socket in the home of a soldier, citing a preliminary police report, and Mr. Roth Khemrun saying it was started by a candle.
“The candle was burning and dropped to the wooden floor, causing the fire,” Mr. Roth Khemrun said.
The deputy governor, who is also the director of the district branch of the Red Cross, said the government could not afford to compensate victims of the fire, but that he would seek donations from members of the public to help those who lost their homes.
Burnt-out motorbikes, blackened sheets of tin and broken walls were all that remained of the affected homes when dawn broke on Friday morning.
Tith Sinet, 35, lost everything except for her father’s bones and the spirit house where they are kept. She was on her way to Siem Reap province with her family to join relatives for Khmer New Year celebrations when she received a call from her cousin alerting her to the fire.
“We turned around to come back, but when we arrived here our house was on fire,” she said, standing in the doorway of her home as she watched her husband, Kong Veasna, hose down and sift through the smoldering remains.
Ms. Sinet, a fruit vendor, said she had lost cash, important documents, and at least $60,000 worth of diamond jewelry belonging to her sister, all of which had been stored in a locked safe in their home.
“I don’t know what we will do now because all of our money is gone,” she said. “I never expected this. I feel empty. I don’t know what to say.”