‘Avoidable’ Disaster Exposes Failure of Planning

A day after hundreds were crushed to death on the narrow bridge between Phnom Penh’s Hun Sen Park and Koh Pich island, it was clear to all concerned that changes were in order.

Though many officials blamed the deaths on panicking by members of the tightly packed throng, a crowd control expert said yesterday that event planners were obligated to make sure people are not crammed into dangerous situations.

“It isn’t panic that triggers this sort of thing. Really it is the fault of the people who organize the event and the people who are in charge of security on the given day,” said Paul Townsend, an consultant at Crowd Dynamics, a British company that advises governments and event planners on mass movement safety.

When crowds reach densities greater than four people per square meter, pedestrians begin to lose their balance, which can lead to mass surges and mayhem if people are not responsibly dispersed, said Mr Townsend.

To avoid such dangerous conditions, most event planners need to slow crowds at the entrance to smaller areas to avoid creating bottlenecks, according to Mr Townsend.

After 362 Muslim pilgrims to Mecca were trampled in a 2006 stampede, Mr Townsend in 2007 helped the Saudi Arabian government create a system of structure and security personnel that slows the flow of pedestrians and provides them with information to ensure calm.

“These events are rare because they are avoidable,” said Mr Townsend.

For much of the festival, no barriers were erected near Diamond Bridge between Koh Pich and Hun Sen Park, which was the site of consistently heavy pedestrian traffic before the incident.

Prior the Water Festival, Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema presided over the creation of a master plan for event security calling for the deployment of roughly 9,000 municipal and military police. The officers were assigned to set zones along the waterfront; 2,838 officers were assigned to monitor “Zone A,” the waterfront area.

Prior to the festival, municipal authorities said they expected roughly 3 million people to attend the festival. According to several government officials, roughly the predicted number of visitors were in attendance.

There was consensus yesterday among those involved with the event’s planning that the feasibility of next year’s festival would be based largely on the hard lessons being learned.

National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said law enforcement officials planned to respond to the government’s ultimate report on the incident.

“We are thinking about spending more time on planning and training officers for next year but we will follow from what the government learns,” said Mr Chantharith.

Chea Kean, deputy secretary-general of National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals, said the events planning committee would study the final report on the Koh Pich tragedy by the investigating commission before planning next year’s festival.

Keo Dary, director of the municipality’s poverty reduction unit, said that doing more to educate visitors would be crucial, but that dispensing information at Water Festival is complicated by the crowd’s provenance.

“I think that the people from the provinces are not well educated and don’t understand how to behave sometimes,” said Ms Dary. “When they are happy they just mess around.”

Khun Vanna, a 23-year-old Takeo province villager in Phnom Penh for the Water Festival, said yesterday that he felt fortunate he survived the trip.

“Next year, I don’t plan to visit because I’m afraid there will be the same problems as this year,” said Mr Vanna. “I will only come back if the government and City Hall strengthen security measures.”

 

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