At least 17 people drowned Saturday night when an overloaded private ferry in Kratie province capsized as it was bringing revelers to a Kathin festival performance in Chhlong district, officials said.
The wooden ferry overturned at about 8:15 pm spilling some 30 people into a tributary of the Mekong River, said provincial police chief Chuong Seang Hak. He added that the boat was about 40 meters from the shore when it overturned.
Police blamed overcrowding for the accident, noting that the boat was carrying about double its maximum passenger capacity as well as about nine motorbikes.
“It was careless of the wooden ferry’s owner, who is running the business every day, because [the ferry] can take only 15 passengers across this arm of the river,” Mr Seang Hak said by telephone.
Two police patrol boats scoured the area for survivors and the dead throughout the night Saturday and into Sunday morning but with no success, Mr Seang Hak said. Over the course of the night, police were only able to find 17 unique items of footwear floating in the river, leading them to believe that at least that many had drowned. On Sunday morning local villagers were hired to assist police in the search and by 10 am 17 bodies had been recovered from the river.
Mr Seang Hak said that 14 of the 17 dead recovered so far were women and that a four- to five-year-old boy was also among the victims. He added that police believe there could be more victims and are continuing to search for bodies.
The dead appear to be locals from Kompong Damrei commune who were looking to attend a dramatic performance being hosted at a pagoda across the river in Chhlong commune, police said. Interest in the performance was what drove so many to get on the ferry at once, and the operators of the boat were negligent by not limiting access to their vessel, Mr Seang Hak said.
Police said a married couple own the ferry service and that the wife has already been detained by police over the accident. Police are now searching for the woman’s husband who appears to have fled. Police declined to reveal the names or ages of the owners of the ferry service.