At about 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the ordinarily still water of Kop Srov lake on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where Khorn Reth and Touch Sloek were fishing, began to churn.
Once Mr. Reth, 27, realized that an unnatural current was pulling his boat toward the shore about 40 meters away, he fired up his motor and attempted to fight the powerful flow.
But it was too late. His small wooden fishing boat began to buckle beneath him before the current overturned it and split the hull apart.
Mr. Reth said he grabbed a piece of Styrofoam and let the water drag him toward what had been, just minutes before, an excavation site on the shore.
When the tumult subsided and the water stilled again, Mr. Reth swam to the shore and collapsed.
His 33-year-old crewmate, Mr. Sloek, was gone.
Officials and fishermen said Wednesday that the bizarre occurrence was the result of the collapse of a thin dirt wall, or “dam,” separating a dirt quarry owned by wealthy landowner Nhoek Phorn from the lake in Prek Pnov district’s Prek Pnov commune.
“I can confirm the dam has broken…the water flowed inside the hole,” commune police chief Vann Boeung said. He could not explain, however, what had caused the sliver of land between the two areas to collapse.
Khun Pheap, the wife of Mr. Sloek, blamed her husband’s disappearance on the gaping hole that had been excavated next to the lake, from which dump trucks have hauled away tons of dirt for sale elsewhere.
“If the dam didn’t break…he would not have ended up inside the hole and he would not be dead,” she said.
Ms. Pheap said she was not sure whether she would file a legal complaint against Mr. Phorn’s company for the loss of her husband.
“I have not decided yet, I will wait until my husband is found first. This evening, the company officials came to me and promised to give me money when the body is found,” she said.
Deputy district police chief Suos Sokha was reticent to place blame on Mr. Phorn.
“I dare not say whether we need to take action against the tycoon or not because I am a small police officer,” Mr. Sokha said, adding that the search for Mr. Sloek was ongoing.
“There are a total of about 10 commune police and district police that are still searching for his body,” he said.
Prek Pnov district governor Sok Sambath said officials would continue their search until the man was found.
“We will keep searching for him to find out whether he died or is still alive,” he said.
Nuo Nim, 32, a member of the local fishing community, said the whole incident made her fear for the safety of her relatives, adding that nobody had ever suggested that people stop using the lake.
“I am very concerned about my brother’s safety because he also fishes there,” she said. “The owner of the hole has never banned us from fishing nearby.”
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said he was aware of the collapse, but that he would not comment on the case until he received an official report.
Mr. Phorn, the landowner, could not be reached Wednesday.
A military police officer guarding the gate to the excavation site prevented reporters from entering, as trucks continued to carry out dirt.