Anger, grief over Cambodia stampede

2010-11-24 09:29

Phnom Penh - Grieving Cambodian families on Wednesday began paying their last respects to relatives among the nearly 380 victims killed in a festival stampede, as anger built over security at the event.

Authorities were probing why the throngs of revellers had panicked at the annual water festival, crushing and trampling people underfoot on an overcrowded narrow bridge in Phnom Penh.

The government admitted it had overlooked issues of crowd control at the three-day event, which attracted some three million revellers to the capital from all over Cambodia.

"We were concerned about the possibilities of boats capsizing and pick-pocketing. We did well, but we did not think about this kind of incident," government spokesperson Khieu Kanharith said.

A committee had been set up to investigate the cause of the stampede, he said, adding that a private security firm was in charge of the main festival site Diamond Island and its bridges.

"The place is private, so they used their own security, and police only helped handle order outside," Kanharith said.

Slow response

As the first funerals and cremations began taking place across the country, bewildered relatives searched for answers.

"I feel very sad and angry about what happened," Phea Channara said at a funeral service for his 24-year-old sister on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

"I wonder if the police really did their job. Why did they allow it to happen in the first place?"

Hun Sangheap - who was on the bridge minutes before the stampede happened and helped pull out victims - said the rescuers were slow to respond to the incident.

"The authorities were very late in saving the victims. The company did not manage the security well," the 32-year-old said, referring to the island's private security firm.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has described the disaster as Cambodia's worst tragedy since the Khmer Rouge's 1975-1979 reign of terror, which left up to a quarter of the population dead. Thursday will be a national day of mourning.

Dead delivered home

At least 378 people were killed in the stampede and another 750 were injured, government spokesperson Phay Siphan said on Tuesday.

Exuberant festival-goers had been crossing the bridge to reach an island hosting concerts, food stalls and ice sculptures before the crowd turned to a deadly crush of writhing and then lifeless human bodies.

In scenes replicated across the city, the dead were laid out in rows under a white tent erected in Calmette Hospital car park, their uncovered faces showing that many had sustained bloody bruises during the stampede.

Military trucks later began delivering the victims back to their relatives.

It was not immediately clear what had triggered the disaster, but Kanharith said a rumour had spread among revellers celebrating one of Cambodia's biggest festivals that the bridge was unstable.

He said many of the deaths were caused by suffocation and internal injuries, adding that about two-thirds of those killed were women.

Tragic end

One survivor at Calmette Hospital who suffered serious back injuries recalled the anguish of being unable to help others around him as the surging crowd became a suffocating crush.

"I felt selfish when it happened, but I could not help myself. There was a child trapped under me and I wanted to pull him up but I couldn't," he said, asking not to be named.

The stampede marked a tragic end to the boat races, concerts and fireworks that are traditionally part of the annual festival to celebrate the reversal of the flow between the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers.

The event - which saw hundreds of brightly coloured boats take part in races on the Tonle Sap - is popular with tourists but the government said no foreigners were believed to be among the victims.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited Cambodia earlier this month, offered her country's "thoughts and prayers" following the disaster. Other countries to send their condolences include Russia, and Asian neighbours Thailand and Singapore.