A four-story apartment building collapsed early Tuesday morning in Chbar Ampav commune southeast of the capital, killing at least one man and trapping his wife and toddler in a 10-meter pile of rubble and twisted rebar.
The mother and child were rescued nearly 12 hours later by workers who dug into the debris with shovels, sledge hammers and bare hands, calling to the semi-conscious woman to find her under bricks and sheets of concrete.
Tek Cheat, 20, the last survivor to walk out of the debris under his own power, said he was asleep on the third floor.
“I didn’t know what was happening when the building collapsed,” he said. “In my room there were seven workers sleeping, but now I do not know where they are.”
Chhun Chhoun, governor of Meanchey district, said 17 workers who were asleep on the third floor survived the collapse, four of them with minor injuries. He said the number of dead would not be known until workers searched through all of the debris.
“We are still seeking them,” he said.
The collapsed building, located on National Route 1 about 1 km east of the Monivong Bridge, ripped one wall off an adjoining block of apartments, leaving the rooms exposed.
Municipal officials quickly blamed building owner Mean Hour for the disaster, saying he did not have permission from authorities to build. He had been warned that the block of eight apartments was improperly built and would not stand, municipal authorities said.
Phnom Penh governor Chea Sophara said the city issued an arrest warrant for building owner Mean Hour on Tuesday because he built the apartments without authorization.
Chea Sophara said the owner also slowed the rescue effort immediately after the collapse by refusing to allow city workers onto the site.
“Most importantly, they don’t care about the people inside the building,” Chea Sophara said.
Two construction cranes were used to move heavier sections of debris, but most of the rescue effort was directed by a group of police, neighbors and moto drivers who wormed their way deep into the rubble.
Onlookers crowded the disaster site despite repeated warnings from police that the pile could shift under their weight and trap the rescuers working below.
The toddler, naked but miraculously unhurt, was pulled from the rubble almost 10 hours after the 1:40 am collapse. The boy’s mother was extracted about two hours later and rushed to a hospital. Her condition was not immediately known.
She directed rescuers to her location by calling for help through a thin plastic water pipe that had been wedged into the pile.
“Please help me, my husband is nearby but he is injured!” she told a Cambodia Daily reporter a few hours after the collapse. Her husband later died due to massive injuries to his chest.
Say Nitha, deputy of local construction for Meanchey district, said the owner of the building bribed officials to build without authorization, then hired guards to keep inspectors away.
“I myself ordered him to get permission from the municipal urbanization department, but he did not listen to us,” Say Nitha said.
Municipal authorities issued a warning earlier this year that several large apartment buildings in Phnom Penh should be condemned and torn down due to old age and poor construction.
A condemned building collapsed several years ago near Wat Phnom, killing 10 squatters who had been urged to find another place to live.