A city fire official said Tuesday that he was “very sorry” that firemen were not able to prevent the deaths of two boys and save the 51 homes destroyed in Saturday night’s Daun Penh district fire.
Villagers and human rights workers said Sunday and Monday that firefighters demanded money from villagers before working to extinguish the fire. And some stopped fighting the fire once it became evident that no money was forthcoming, Village Chief Mey Chhoeurn charged.
But Sok Vannra, a first deputy fire chief for the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Fire Brigade, said firemen did all that they could to fight the fire, which began between 11 pm and midnight in Srah Chak commune and left 96 families homeless.
Lacking protective uniforms, firemen could not enter the rickety village and elected to fire their hoses from the road into the village’s northeast area where a leaking gas can reportedly started the fire, Sok Vannra said.
When they ran out of water, fire trucks were delayed getting to a refilling area because of the difficulty faced by driving and maneuvering in the area’s narrow dirt roads, Sok Vannra said.
Sok Vannra did not deny that firemen may have accepted money from villagers, but he added that panicked villagers may have instinctively offered it. He said it was also possible that other officials posing as firemen could have demanded bribes, because there was chaos and it was “very dark.” He denied villagers’ charges that firemen brought guns to the fire.
Suon Sopheak, a major at the Municipal Police Fire Brigade, said it was difficult to conduct an investigation because villagers were angry with the department. Any fireman found to have demanded money from villagers would be fired, he added.
Defending his department’s performance, he said there was little that could be done in “anarchic” villages with wooden houses, poor electrical systems and poor roads.
“There will be another fire like this if people still live in this area,” he said.