A fire tore through Phnom Penh’s Phsar Chas early Monday morning, incinerating hundreds of stalls in the historic market and damaging hundreds more before a fleet of fire trucks brought the blaze under control more than two hours later.
Phsar Chas, or “Old Market,” which was until Monday home to nearly 1,000 stalls and ringed daily by dozens of street vendors, had not yet opened when the fire broke out at its center shortly before 7:30 a.m. Had the market been open, the flames would likely have taken many lives, said deputy municipal governor Khuong Sreng, who accompanied firefighters to the scene.
“We went to Phsar Chas this morning after the fire started, and I think that out of 914 stalls, more than 300 were destroyed, but there were no casualties,” Mr. Sreng said.
“Our main concern was to protect the lives of the vendors…so we were not thinking about what caused the fire or the cost of the damage,” he said.
By the time firefighters arrived, the flames had spread to the east-facing front gate. Vendors rushed to salvage whatever stock they could.
Twenty-nine fire trucks from six different units circled the market, pumping out a total of 660 cubic meters of water to quell the inferno, according to Prum Yorn, chief of the National Police’s fire bureau.
Market fires break out regularly in Cambodia and are usually sparked by haphazard wiring and exacerbated by unenforced fire and safety regulations. In December 2012, eight people died in a fire that engulfed Siem Reap City’s popular night market.
“I appeal to vendors at all other markets to please be careful and make sure that your electrical wiring is safe and always have fire extinguishers in your stalls,” Mr. Yorn said.
Sann Sokleap, 38, whose jewelry shop inside the market survived the blaze, said a small fire broke out at about 6:30 a.m. but was quickly put out by market security guards. But when it flared up again, the flames quickly got out of control.
“I had been setting up, but when the fire spread, we ran out from the market to escape,” Ms. Sokleap said. “My stall was saved, but my sister’s clothing shop was completely destroyed.”
Another vendor, Sok Leang, 42, said the clothing stall he had managed for more than 10 years had been gutted, his stock burned beyond salvaging.
“I’ve lost between $6,000 to $7,000 worth of clothing. I am in shock,” he said.
In a statement Monday, City Hall said the fire started in a part of the market where vendors sell mosquito nets, blankets, sheets and mattresses, all of which acted as kindling.
“[I]t was difficult to put out the fire initially because the stalls have aluminum roofs that made it difficult to direct the water down into the stall,” the statement said.
The statement also addressed rumors, circulating on social media Monday, that the fire was an act of arson intended to clear the market for development.
“City Hall rejects…some of the public’s comments that someone secretly burned down the market so that it could be redeveloped,” it said.
The Old Market area, which sits on prime real estate just south of Wat Phnom between Norodom Boulevard and the riverside, has long been earmarked for potential redevelopment. In June, a Thai company proposed turning the site into an eight-story parking garage.
Municipal spokesman Long Dimanche said Monday no deal had been struck to redevelop the area.
“We do not have a plan to construct a new building on Phsar Chas and there is no private investment [to develop it] either,” he said.
Hundreds of people continued to pick through the still-smoldering debris Monday afternoon to retrieve what they could, while scavengers broke down metal structures and loaded them onto carts.
Sitting on a folding chair amid the rubble, district governor Kuoch Chamroeun said authorities would work throughout the night to clear the site, adding that the most recent count put the number of stalls lost to the fire at 229, with hundreds more damaged.
“We estimate losses of about $1.5 million,” he said. “The main thing now is to sort through the wreckage and see what can be salvaged so all the vendors can return and rebuild their shops again.”
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