Five children and two adults died in Siem Reap province Saturday evening after attempting to rescue an 11-year-old who descended to retrieve 3,000 riel (about $0.75) that had fallen into an oxygen-deprived well. An eighth person survived but was rushed to the hospital unconscious.
The tragedy struck five separate families in Banteay Srei district’s Romchek commune, who gathered Sunday evening to hold funerals for the seven who died.
According to acting district police chief Muy Nan, the incident started Saturday morning when 50-year-old Tuy Chen—the father of three of the victims—accidentally dropped the 3,000 riel and his lighter into his well while scooping water.
Mr. Chen descended into the well using a long bamboo stick but failed to find the money, shouting up to his children that he had only recovered the lighter, he said.
“The father of the victims went into the well to pick up the money and he was safe when he climbed back,” Mr. Nan said. “In the morning and night, oxygen exists in the well but there is none there in the evening.”
Unaware of this crucial difference, Mr. Chen’s 11-year-old son Che Aun later in the day approached the well to see if he would have better luck, according to Mr. Nan.
After Che Aun failed to surface, his 13- and 15-year-old sisters, Che Kea and Che Ratana, went in after him setting off a chain of doomed rescue attempts.
Hay Chandy, 12 and his brother Hay Sangda, 20, went in after the sisters, followed by Chhem Sokhy, 16 and Teab Puon, 32. Only the final person to descend, Soy Peam, 27, survived.
The entire event took barely an hour, said commune police chief Phon Pheap, who said police arrived as soon as a neighbor realized what had happened and called the authorities.
“We tested the well by tying a chicken by rope and lowering it into the well. After a few minutes, the chicken was unconscious,” he said. “They died because there was no oxygen in the well.”
Village chief Daung Chek said the tragedy was linked in no small part to the impoverished state of Mr. Chen’s family.
“That family is very poor, so poor that they don’t have enough rice to eat,” he said. In addition to the three children who died, Mr. Chen has eight others.
Som Tok, the father of Hay Chandy and Hay Sangda, said the elder had first jumped in after his brother went silent.
“My older son went into the well to rescue his brother when his brother was quiet,” he said.