Water Festival-goers trapped in crowd, crushed on final night
The final night of Water Festival celebrations in Phnom Penh turned deadly yesterday evening as a stampede on a bridge serving Koh Pich island left nearly 200 revelers dead and hundreds more injured, authorities said.
Sirens screamed throughout Daun Penh district as authorities struggled to part seas of festivalgoers to make way for ambulances, which made their way to the southernmost portion of the city’s riverfront.
Shortly after 1 am, Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared on Bayon TV, saying that 180 people had been killed.
With the city’s emergency responses stretched to the limit, trucks from the Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit joined a seemingly endless rotation of police trucks, ambulances and other vehicles in depositing victims at Calmette Hospital, where the dead and wounded lined the floors as hospital staff struggled to cope with the flood of patients.
By midnight, the hospital had to begin turning away ambulances, which were referred to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Chamkar Mon district. Interior Minister Sar Kheng appeared at the bridge shortly after midnight as rescue crews continued retrieving bodies and tending to the injured.
Survivors at the hospital said milling crowds on the waterfront had been immobilized by their own density on the bridges, causing pedestrians to faint and stampede, with many spilling into the island channel in the Bassic river.
“We were stuck on the bridge for about 30 minutes, and then people started to faint,” Heang Choeun, 30, of Prey Veng, told a reporter at the hospital.
“If no one had anybody to hold on to, they fell down. It was chaos. There was no air.”
Shortly after midnight, military police at the bridges could be seen removing bodies from the riverfront and Australian firefighters were also seen responding.
Death tolls seemed to mount throughout the night. By telephone, Pong Savrith, deputy Phnom Penh military police commander, said authorities were still grappling with the scale of the disaster.
“Right now, maybe 300 to 500 were hurt, including the dead,” he said. “We just don’t know.”
At midnight, Health Minister Mam Bunheng, who was present at the hospital yesterday evening to witness the response, was informed by a doctor that 60 bodies lay at the scene of the accident and that the total number of dead would exceed 100 when combined with those at the hospital.
But half an hour later, the estimate seemed to have risen.
“Now at Calmette, there are 51 women dead and 16 men dead,” Chey Sophen of the Phnom Penh military police told a reporter at the hospital.
The mayhem was a spectacular and tragic end to a ceremony that officials had said earlier had gone smoothly due to attentive planning and an alert police force.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter, Porn Bopha, Tem Sokhom and Mark Worley)