A grandfather and two of his grandchildren were killed by a decades-old artillery shell on Tuesday in Prey Veng province when it exploded as the old man was using it as a makeshift workbench.
Tep Phal, 73, had the 105mm shell sticking out of the ground head first at his home in Preah Sdech district and was using the flat bottom as a surface to beat a small piece of metal into shape with an ax, according to Sreng Chea, the provincial police chief. Mr. Chea said the old man was preparing the metal piece to cap a wood stake he wanted to use to tether his cows.
“According to relatives and villagers, he had it since the 1980s and always used it as a surface to hit things, but it never exploded,” he said.
When the shell finally did explode on Tuesday at about 11:30 a.m., it instantly killed Tep Phal and the two children—Phal Nary, 12, and her brother Phal Dara, 9.
“I think maybe he did not think it could explode,” Mr. Chea said. “It’s very shocking because the family lost three members at once.”
He said authorities had often informed locals about the dangers of old ordnance and that it had been a long time since such an explosion had claimed a life in the province.
“When it exploded, his wife was in the house,” Romcheck commune chief Pheung Ry said. “But his two grandchildren were playing near him, so they were killed along with their grandfather.”
Mr. Ry said he had often seen the shell at Tep Phal’s house but had no idea he was using it as a makeshift workbench and thought the old man, a former teacher, would have known better.
“Previously, CMAC [Cambodian Mine Action Center] officials had educated villagers in my commune, but he kept it in secret,” Mr. Ry said. “I think he thought it would not explode.”
He said the bodies would be cremated today.
The government advises villagers to report to authorities any old ordnance they uncover and not to handle it themselves.
Cambodia remains littered with old mines, bombs and rockets across the country. Though annual casualty rates have dropped dramatically over the decades, unexploded ordnance killed 18 people and injured 83 last year.
Prey Veng has one of the lowest casualty rates in the country and was the site of only one accident in 2015. The vast majority of accidents occur in the northwestern provinces next to the Thai border, which the government mined heavily in the 1980s in a bid to keep Khmer Rouge guerillas at bay.