Still Unclear Where Buck Stops In Deadly Stampede Scandal

Gov’t, Firm Say Each Other Responsible for Crowds

While investigators yesterday continued piecing together what caused Monday night’s deadly stampede at Phnom Penh’s privately run Koh Pich island, the government and a private development firm passed responsibility for security at the scene back and forth.

City police said they did not know who was responsible.

In the early hours of the disaster, the government appeared keenly aware of its political liabilities, as Cabinet ministers responded in person and Prime Minister Hun Sen delivered multiple live addresses on television. Mr Hun Sen called it the largest single loss of life in the country since the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said yesterday that security for traffic over the three bridges that tie the mainland to Koh Pich island

was the purview of the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, the private firm that operates both the island and the bridges.

“Koh Pich security was supposed to monitor the bridge and maintain security on Koh Pich,” he said.

But Susi Tan, OCIC’s island project manager, pointed the other way.

“For the policing side, it is the government,” she said.

“We built the bridge. We are not responsible for the public,” said Ms Tan. “What we try doing is assist the public. We don’t have the rights to control the public.”

Pong Savrith, Phnom Penh’s deputy military police chief, said it was unclear who bore responsibility.

“We cannot really tell who was in charge,” he said. “It seems the police and [company] security worked together.”

Redolent of stampedes common in Saudi Arabia and India, the soaring death toll, given yesterday as at least 379, easily put Monday’s catastrophe among the deadliest of the past 10 years. Only the 2005 stampede on Baghdad’s al-Aaimmah bridge, in which more than 1,000 people died in a bomb scare, appeared to have been deadlier.

Accounts continued to vary yesterday on what may have triggered the calamity.

Hean Kunthy, a drinks vendor set up on the mainland near the bridge, said she saw police train a water hose on a crowd of people trying to press their way onto an already packed bridge in an apparent attempt to keep them away.

“I saw police water the people to stop them from trying to get onto the bridge,” she said.

Along with the water, witnesses stuck in the crowd reported trouble with the electrical wires feeding the neon lights running up and down the bridge.

Already stuck for hours, “some people started jumping off the bridge into the river,” said Horng Sat, who managed to struggle out of the crowd with his wife with minor injuries. “One of them accidentally hit a light and cut the wire. I moved next to the rail…and felt a shock.”

Other witnesses reported hearing screams from people claiming they had been shocked by police. Varied accounts blamed them all for finally setting the stampede in motion.

Government officials yesterday unanimously dismissed the claims.

Mr Savrith, of the military police, blamed an errant joke.

“It appears some young men wanted to tease some girls, so they yelled that the bridge was collapsing, leading to the chaos. People got scared and started pushing each other back and forth,” he said.

Whatever the cause, all agreed that the crowd panicked. Some fainted. Others tried to force their way out. Many jumped over the rails into the channel below. According to police, rescue teams only managed to reach the scene through still-heavy traffic in just under an hour. Approaching midnight, they were still carrying limp bodies off the bridge by the dozens while boats scoured the channel for more victims.

By yesterday morning, the only reminder left of what had happened were the piles of shoes and sandals lost in the compression. With either end of the bridge blocked off for a steady stream of investigators, hundreds of locals silently gathered on either shore to watch.

Ms Tan of the OCIC insisted that the firm was properly prepared for the festival crowds.

She said the nightly numbers on the island—where festival organizers had set up rides, booths and a concert stage—were actually below the half-million the firm had planned for, well within the means of its three bridges.

Noticing that most visitors were choosing to leave by the northernmost Diamond Bridge, she said, the firm’s security team tried funneling them to the two other bridges and reserving Diamond for those trying to get on.

But she said the crowd had other ideas, insisting on leaving by Diamond Bridge. The 20 security guards deployed to stop them failed to do so.

“We put up the barriers, and we tried to block them, but the crowd sometimes wanted to be violent,” forcing their way into oncoming traffic and finally immobilizing movement either way, she said.

Hoping to avoid just that, she said security asked police officers posted on the other side of the bridge for help to stem oncoming traffic, at least an hour before the stampede started. About the same time, Bayon TV broadcast a request of festivalgoers still planning on heading to Koh Pich island to stay away.

But Ms Tan said the crowd was just too much.

“With a crowd like that, even if you use 100 guards it would not be enough,” she said.

Ms Tan refused to place any of the blame for the stampede on the firm.

“This you have to ask the government side…. You should ask the government side what is their responsibility,” she said. “If there were more police, it might have helped.”

Ms Tan also refused to put a reporter in touch with the firm’s security chief who was on duty Monday night. Pung Kheav Se, CEO of OCIC, could not be reached.

National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith conceded that even the police were overwhelmed by the crowd.

“The police and military police were there. But there were too many people, so we could not help them,” he said.

Even the police at the scene, he added, may not have been prepared.

“I don’t think the police had enough training,” he said, declining further comment until the government completes its investigation into the incident.

Mr Kanharith, the government spokesman, said the government was not to blame for an “unpredictable accident.”

“Maybe some lawyer later will find out who is responsible,” he said. “Right now, the most important thing is to [return] the bodies.”

            (Additional reporting by Andrew Burmon, Kuch Naren and Tim Sturrock)

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