Eight people, four of them children, were killed when fire ripped through Siem Reap City’s popular night market in the early hours of Saturday morning, officials and witnesses said.
The fire, which started at about 2 a.m., left the market completely gutted and damage estimated at $1 million.
Siem Reap City governor Tep Bun Chhay said that people living in apartments above the market had been unable to escape the fire, which was started by an electrical fault.
“Some people were sleeping with their families, some people suffocated and some could not find their way out during the fire on the upper floor of the building,” he said.
Four adults and four children aged between 8 and 13, all members of two families, died from suffocation or burns, he said.
“It took a long time to put out the fire because the building was made from concrete. Police tried very hard to put out the fire and they tried to save the people in the house, but the fire and the smoke was too strong,” he said.
Brothers Hour Sokvuthy, 17, and Hour Sokvatha, 14, were both rescued by firefighters, he said. The elder brother was sent to a hospital in Vietnam on Saturday night and the younger has been taken to the Kantha Bopha hospital in Siem Reap, he said.
Siem Reap City police chief Thoeung Chendarith said Sokvatha was spotted by firefighters, who then used a ladder to rescue him.
“After we had saved him, he told us that his mother, father and sister were in the room too. We went back to search again, but they had already died,” he said. “They could not find the way out and they were locked in.”
Mr. Chendarith said that four police fire trucks arrived at the scene from about 2:30 a.m., and were then joined by fire trucks from the Ministry of Environment, the Apsara Authority and Siem Reap International Airport.
He said that by 4 a.m., the fire was under control, and was finally extinguished at 4:30 a.m.
Witnesses questioned the authorities’ version of events and claimed that some firefighters—who are overseen by the Interior Ministry—were demanding payment to turn their hoses on people’s homes and businesses.
Tuk-tuk driver Poung Chamra, 23, said he helped out, along with many bystanders—including foreigners—to help douse the fire in lieu of effective action by the police firefighters.
“Some people helped to hold the hose to put water on the fire while others used buckets to carry water to put out the fire,” he said.
“[The police] wanted money. I saw one neighbor handing money to the fire police,” he said. “If they had put out the fire in time, the victims would have had time to escape from the fire, they would have survived.”
Lau Sovont, the owner of the Old Market Hostel, which overlooks the market, said he had been forced to close his establishment yesterday because the heat from the nearby blaze had broken a dozen windows in the building.
“At 2 in the night, I first saw the small fire in the bottom of the market. I was scared, so I got everyone out of the hotel,” he said. “By 2:30, it was a big fire…very hot.”
Mr. Sovont said just one fire truck arrived at the scene at about 2:40 a.m.
“They were not working. They kept in front of the guesthouse. I asked why they are stopped, they said they have no water,” Mr. Sovont said. “I think they [didn’t] put out the fire because they need the money.”
One or two more police fire trucks arrived later, but the main work putting out the fire appeared to be done by the airport’s fire truck, which arrived at about 3 a.m., he said.
“It [the airport fire truck] came in and stopped the fire and didn’t ask for money,” he said. “Maybe if I see them [the airport firefighters] later, I will give them some money.”
Mr. Chendarith, the provincial police chief, denied that his officials had asked for, or taken, money at the scene of the blaze.
An official in the night market’s administration, who refused to give his name, said the damage amounted to at least $1 million, including the razing of about 100 market stalls and the loss of goods including jewelry, sculptures, traditional textiles and silk.
“It was an unintentional thing. No one wanted it to happen,” he said, expressing sympathy for the victims and their families.
Mr. Chendarith said it would depend on the stall owners whether the market would be rebuilt. “We cannot pay for the [lost] goods, but we can allow them to sell their goods for one year for free,” he said.
Saturday’s incident echoed a similar fire in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sangke market in July, when 57 homes and a vast section of the marker were consumed. Then, vendors also reported that fire trucks refused to spray water on some people’s properties without payment, and alleged that their inaction allowed the fire to spread.
The Phnom Penh Municipality at the time issued a response to the claims.
“Accusing [authorities] without basis like this, it is not with good intentions and not constructive. It discourages the authorities from their work because they have to study how to spray water tactically on the right parts of the fire,” it said.