At least 13 people were injured and an unknown number are believed dead after a fire ripped through a garment factory in Phnom Penh Wednesday night, causing the four-story structure to collapse, officials and witnesses said.
Fleets of fire engines dumped payloads of water in a relay race stretching through Wednesday night as the fire continued to smolder into Thursday evening, sending acrid white smoke over the 4-meter-high mound of rubble that once made up the factory’s four floors.
On Wednesday, factory workers said none of the 1,000-strong work force employed at the Malaysian-owned Grandtex International Ltd factory were trapped inside the destroyed building, but witnesses and officials later said a number of people may have been caught as the factory collapsed.
One witness said those trapped may have been looters who descended on the building hoping to salvage valuable items before the entire building was consumed.
“I suspect some people are missing under the debris of the building, but it is too early to estimate how many. I received this report from local police,” said Ker Sok Sithiny, an adviser to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor who visited the disaster site on Thursday.
Chea Sokhaiy, chief of Chak Angre Krom commune in Meanchey district, where the factory was located, said the fire broke out at around 7:40 pm on Wednesday and within minutes the entire building was burning furiously.
Pich Mony, a security guard at the factory said the fire alarm was raised one hour before the building collapsed. All the employees escaped safely, he said, adding that an electrical fault was likely the cause of the blaze.
Fire engines were at the scene for just a short time before the factory collapsed, Chea Sokhaiy said.
Nine Chinese factory workers and four local people, who were trying to save their homes from the flames, were injured by falling masonry, he said.
“When the building collapsed many pieces of debris hit them. One victim was under the debris until we were able to take him out at 2 am last night. His leg was broken,” Chea Sokhaiy said Thursday. A municipal firefighter, who would only identify himself as Saravuth, said he counted 13 injured people but said many others were rushing around the burning building trying to salvage belongings.
“People were running in and running out, there was chaos. But after the building collapsed there was no more chaos. That could mean some people are still under the debris,” Saravuth said.
Firefighters were still busy hosing down the flattened factory on Thursday afternoon trying to extinguish tons of cloth cuttings that continued to smolder from underneath the layers of smashed concrete and twisted steel.
Late Wednesday night, firefighters and Red Cross workers complained about a lack of specialized search, rescue and lifting equipment as they attempted to free a badly injured man from beneath a mountain of bricks.
There were no signs of an attempt by authorities on Thursday to begin an organized search of the rubble pile, nearly the size of a football field.
However, a group of young boys—clad in bright red, sleeveless jackets they had pulled from the wreckage of the factory—were undeterred by the choking white smoke as they busily picked through the mounds of debris looking for clothes and other valuables.
Officials who visited the factory said Thursday it was too early to assess the cost of the fire, but municipal authorities had begun questioning the reasons behind the building’s collapse.
Say Nitha, deputy chief of the city’s Urbanization Department in Meanchey district, claimed on Thursday the factory was built in 1997 but only had permission to be two floors high, not four.
“This building was built with the wrong technique,” Say Nitha said.