Nation in Mourning as Koh Pich Body Count Approaches 400

The death toll after Monday night’s catastrophe that saw a stampede on a bridge connecting Phnom Penh’s mainland with Koh Pich island continued to mount yesterday as the number of fatalities approached the 400 mark. 

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said late yesterday that as of 4 pm, at least 379 people had been confirmed dead and 755 injured in the deadliest single day for peacetime Cambodia.

“We heard that most of the victims were women,” he said.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said in a telephone interview yesterday that the government had set aside 5 million riel, or about $1,200, for each bereaved family. The government will also provide a coffin for every victim.

“Our main task is to find out who is who, identify their families, and send the bodies back home,” Mr Kanharith said.

To respond to the crisis, Mr Kan­harith said the government had set up three committees: one to investigate the cause of the ­disaster, a second to supervise identification of victims and a third to conduct autopsies of the dead.

The committees are respectively led by Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha, Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng and Health Minister Mam Bunheng, he said.

Health Minister Mam Bunheng said yesterday the government’s autopsy committee had arrived at preliminary conclusions showing the deaths were caused after victims either suffocated or were crushed.

“The first result from the autopsy committee has found out that people died because of the stampede, but nobody has been found electrocuted,” Mr Bunheng said.

Witnesses reported, however, that the combination of water being poured on those on the bridge and loose wiring had caused some people to suffer electrical shocks.

Mr Bunheng added that the government had enough medical supplies to cope with the emergency and that no outside help was needed.

But humanitarian aid organization World Vision said in a statement yesterday that “hundreds of injured Cambodians are in need of medical attention and support.”

“The scale of this tragedy has overwhelmed the government hospitals. My staff who visited said what they saw was very distressing,” said World Vision Country Director Esther Halim. “There were people lying in the corridors waiting for treatment and many relatives arriving at the hospital looking for loved ones and in a most distraught state.”

During a meeting yesterday chaired by Ross Sovann, deputy secretary-general of the National Committee for Disaster Management, humanitarian organizations Caritas, Oxfam International, World Vision Cambodia, Care Cambodia and Save the Children pledged a total of $27,000 to provide food and water to patients over the next five days.

In a second live video broadcast after the disaster early yesterday morning, Prime Minister Hun Sen made a public apology to the nation and ordered a full investigation into the cause of the disaster.

Meanwhile, the opposition SRP visited Phnom Penh’s main hospitals to provide support to the victims and gave each family 20,000 riel, or about $5, in envelopes, according to SRP lawmaker Chea Poch.

In a statement yesterday, the SRP said “the government must explain in the National Assembly as soon as possible” the exact causes of the disaster and suspend all officials found responsible for the tragedy.

At 3 pm yesterday, about 500 monks and nuns from pagodas in Phnom Penh marched from Wat Botum near the Royal Palace to the site of Monday’s tragedy, where they held a Buddhist ceremony known as Baing Sa’Koul to bless the souls of the dead.

Foreign governments yesterday offered their condolences to Cambodia in the aftermath of Monday night’s disaster and in most cases said assistance was available if requested by the government.

Qian Hai, spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, said China had donated $10,000 to the government to go toward relief efforts.

In a statement yesterday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wrote to Mr Hun Sen to offer condolences.

“I was shocked to know that a stampede took place in Phnom Penh on November 22, causing heavy casualties and losses. On behalf of the Chinese government, I wish to express to Samdech and through Samdech to the victims and their families my deep condolences and profound sympathy,” Mr Wen wrote.

Others from around the world did likewise, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“On behalf of President Obama and the people of the United States, I offer our deep condolences for the tragic loss of life and the injuries in Phnom Penh during Cambodia’s annual Water Festival,” she said in a statement yesterday.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of the victims and with all the people of the Kingdom of Cambodia. I have seen their strength and resilience firsthand, including during my recent visit, and I am confidant that they will pull together and persevere through this difficult time,” she added.

British Ambassador Andrew Mace wrote in an e-mail yesterday that he was “shocked and saddened to hear of the deaths and injuries last night, and our sympathies go out to all the families of the victims,”

Dominique Mas, first counselor at the French Embassy, telephoned Cabinet Minister Sok An and Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong to offer assistance, the French Embassy said.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd wrote to Mr Namhong yesterday to convey his nation’s condolences, according to a spokesperson from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“The Australian government stands ready to provide assistance. We are liaising with the Cambodian authorities to determine what may be required,” the spokesman wrote, adding that a doctor at the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh had offered his services to Calmette Hospital and provided medical supplies.

Oum Daravuth, a member of the Royal Palace Cabinet, said yesterday that King Norodom Sihamoni, retired King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen-Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk had donated $200 to every family of the dead and $100 to every injured person.

In a letter addressed to Buddhist monks, “beloved brothers, sisters, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and compatriots,” retired King Sihanouk wrote yesterday that he was “shocked” by the deadly stampede.

“I and [the Queen Mother] are very regretful and would like to share sympathy with families of all victims,” he wrote.

Aid organizations were also ramping up their efforts to support the emergency efforts.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is working alongside the Cambodian Red Cross to restore family links, and about 50 volunteers have been deployed to gather information and provide counseling services to relatives of the dead and all those injured, said Bruce Eshaya-Chauvin, regional medical delegate for ICRC in Cambodia.

“All the data is being collected to let families know about relatives who are dead or wounded,” Mr Eshaya-Chauvin said, adding that ICRC was also trying to bring 200 body bags from Thailand to ease a shortage in Cambodia.

Men Neary Sopheak, deputy secretary-general for the Cambodian Red Cross, said 10 volunteers were sent to each of four hospitals in Phnom Penh to provide psychological support, trace the missing and help those looking for dead bodies and the wounded.

“For the emergency response, we will see what the need is then provide medical assistance, human resources or technical help,” Ms Neary Sopheak said.

She said it was still too early to identify what the exact needs were and whether they were being met. She added that the Ministry of Health was responsible for providing treatment and medical aid to victims of the tragedy.

  (Reporting by Alice Foster, Khuon Narim, Simon Marks, Neou Vannarin and Saing Soenthrith)

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