Residents yesterday blamed the destruction of hundreds of wooden homes in a Monday evening blaze in Phnom Penh on firefighters who dragged their feet as the flames rose. The city’s chief firefighter strongly denied the allegation.
Officials said they have yet to determine the cause of the conflagration, or the number of homes destroyed. The fire began at about 6:30 pm in Tuol Kok district’s Boeng Kak II commune and was extinguished about three hours later. No injuries or deaths have been reported.
Villagers interviewed yesterday put the number of destroyed homes close to 300, and the number of newly homeless families at more than 400 .
Firefighters arrived a half-hour after the blaze started on Monday but allegedly were slow to act, according to one resident interviewed yesterday morning at the still-smoldering site where people were sifting through charred belongings and scraps of metal.
“Those firefighters were smart. They didn’t demand money from us because they were afraid we would make allegations against them,” said the woman who, citing possible retaliation, only gave her name as Pich.
Ms Pich pointed to a woman whom she accused of paying a bribe and whose house was one of the few still standing. The homeowner declined to talk to reporters.
Vong Vanny, a 48-year-old resident of the destroyed community, accused firefighters of sacrificing his neighborhood because it was poor.
“Of course they didn’t want to put out the blaze,” Mr Vanny said of the firefighters. “They just let the fire get out of control and destroy everything belonging to poor people like us,” he said.
But Neth Vantha, chief of the Phnom Penh firefighter department, denied the bribery allegations, saying conditions at the Boeng Kak Commune II site made it hard for his officers to fight Monday’s fire.
“I strongly dismiss such bribery allegations,” Mr Vantha said. “It makes residents lose confidence in us if we demand bribes.”
Mr Vantha pointed to the nearby Neak Kavoan pagoda complex, which was for the most part saved, though five wooden houses used as monks’ sleeping quarters burned down after the fire jumped from the adjacent community. According to monk Man Samong, one of the destroyed buildings once housed Prime Minister Hun Sen when he lived at the pagoda as a teenager in the 1960s.
“If the firefighters didn’t risk their lives to put out the fire, the fire could have spread fast to demolish the monks’ houses and the pagoda,” Mr Vantha said.
A total of 26 fire trucks from Phnom Penh, the RCAF 70th Infantry Brigade and others were deployed to the scene of the blaze, according to the fire chief.
Fighting fire at the Boeng Kak Commune II site on Monday evening was unusually tough, he said. Access to the enclosed site was hindered by the railway that supplies the only entrance to the area, Mr Vantha explained, not that fire engines could not drive on the steel rail tracks. Problematic also was heavy traffic due to International Women’s Day, which delayed the arrival of firefighters, and a strong wind, which made the blaze hard to contain.
Mr Vantha said he believed there are plans to “develop” the area where the houses burned down in Boeng Kak II commune but said he did not know the details.
Interviewed briefly, Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said the homeless residents will be allowed to rebuild on the site as long as they leave space for road improvements.
“We will let them resettle at the place,” he said. “We have been discussing with villagers and they now agree and volunteer to keep space for road construction in the area.”