The government committee handling casualties from Monday’s stampede at Koh Pich island lowered the official total yesterday of those killed in the incident from 456 to 347, the number of bodies counted by Phnom Penh hospitals.
In a statement issued yesterday morning, Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng, the head of the casualties committee, explained that the 456-person count he publicized Wednesday night had included numbers of missing persons provided by provincial authorities and so was inflated.
“The number of victims was higher than the real number because Phnom Penh authorities and authorities in the provinces have two counts,” read the minister’s statement.
But on Wednesday evening, Mr Sam Heng had claimed that the variance in numbers was arose because bereaved families had removed some bodies from the scene of the stampede.
A report released by Mr Sam Heng’s committee last night said the death toll had not increased yesterday.
In yesterday’s statement, Mr Sam Heng said Prime Minister Hun Sen had led a meeting of the disaster committee that began Tuesday night and ended earlier Wednesday morning, reviewing the process of dealing with casualties and repatriating corpses.
A source working with the government said that earlier this week high-ranking officials were being asked to approve death toll counts before publicizing numbers.
Cabinet Minister Sok An is leading the management of the Koh Pich incident, which comprises three committees devoted to monitoring casualties, distributing compensation and studying the root causes of the tragedy.
Though government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said in an e-mail yesterday that the varying numbers were due to the missing persons count from the provinces, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that the government had collected no “information on missing persons for the time being.”
Authorities from Takeo and Kandal provinces, two of the hardest hit by the Koh Pich disaster, referred questions about the number of missing yesterday to the Social Affairs Ministry.
To deal with families and friends still looking for missing loved ones, Cambodian Red Cross workers have set up booths at the hospitals where most of the injured and dead were taken. Workers recorded the names, sexes, ages and occupations of the missing and collected pictures.
As Sok Mao handed over a photo of a tall young man in a crisp blazer to CRC workers at Calmette Hospital, she began to cry.
“I have called my son many times, but I can’t reach him,” said Sok Mao, a 41-year-old villager from Kampot province who came to Phnom Penh to look for her son after neighbors told her they had seen him in a television broadcast from Koh Pich during the stampede.
Dy Sina, deputy chief of CRC’s disaster management office, looked on as Ms Mao filed her complaint and said she was one of many family members still reaching out for help.
The NGO Friends International, which works with disadvantaged Phnom Penh youths, reported yesterday that five children they worked with are still missing.
Doctors at Calmette, Preah Kossamak and Khmer-Soviet hospitals, where the bulk of those injured in the Koh Pich stampede were taken, reported that no one had succumbed to their injuries since Wednesday, when a man at Preah Kossamak died from kidney failure on that afternoon. The report from the casualties committee yesterday evening upped the estimate of injured visiting major hospitals from the morning count of 395 to 443.
Ross Sovann, deputy secretary-general of the National Committee for Disaster Management, blamed the spike in reported injuries on initial panic.
“Some people were very scared so when they were released from the stampede they ran home…. Some were taken to private hospitals,” said Mr Sovann. “When they heard that the government was providing free service at public hospitals, they came.”
At Phnom Penh Referral Hospital, one of the smaller hospitals not officially asked by the government to help victim’s of Monday’s tragedy, the injured were told to go to one of the four larger hospitals charged with caring for the stampede victims.
“There some more newcomers, but the hospital could not admit them for the concern of confusing the statistic with other hospital,” he said, adding that those were discharged from another hospital and privately owned clinic but they then returned to his hospital in the hope of receiving money from the government.
(Reporting by Andrew Burmon, Alice Foster, Hul Reaksmey, Clancy McGilligan, Phann Ana and Saing Soenthrith)