Cambodia mourns Water Festival dead

Crowds of mourners in Cambodia have offered flowers and incense at the site of a stampede that killed 347 people. The government declared a national day of mourning yesterday to honour those who died in the stampede, which was reportedly caused by fears that overcrowded bridge was about to collapse. A tearful Prime Minister Hun Sen, dressed in black, burnt incense at the foot of the narrow bridge, as he led the country at a short service. The stampede took place on the last day of the Water Festival. Questions are yet to be answered as to exactly what went wrong, but survivors say there was not enough security.

Presenter: Robert Carmichael
Speakers: Kep Chuktema, governor of Phnom Penh; Hy Sophan, bridge survivor; Kuth Vy, bridge survivor

CARMICHAEL: Cambodia held a day of mourning Thursday for 347 people who were crushed to death or suffocated when thousands of people were trapped on a 5-metre-wide pedestrian bridge earlier this week.

A number of ceremonies took place at the bridge that links mainland Phnom Penh across a narrow river to the entertainment area known as Diamond Island.

Thousands came throughout the day to place wreaths and flowers, and to burn incense in memory of those who died. Flags across the country were flown at half-mast.

People discussed the events of Monday evening, standing on the riverbank next to the 100-metre long suspension bridge, which had been cleared of thousands of personal effects - sandals, clothes, water bottles - in time for the ceremony.

It was a very different scene when I reached the bridge before midnight on Monday evening. Witnesses told me the crush had happened around two hours earlier.

I'm standing on the bridge and there are dozens of dead people lying on the ground here. It's impossible to count because actually there's probably another 30-40 metres of bridge, and they've only cleared the bodies off this first stretch of it. I mean there's easily 40 people dead, easily, and there are a lot of police and ambulances and military, but this is all far, far, far too late.

Survivors have spoken of a lack of security to control crowds, an issue taken up the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, which noted a clear failure on that score by the authorities.

The government's interim investigation report says between seven and eight thousand people were crammed onto the bridge, and claims people panicked when it began to sway.

At Thursday's ceremony, Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema said the bridge could not convey that many people.

CHUKTEMA: And that's why this happen this disaster - it is the very worst. And on behalf, on my position as the governor of Phnom Penh I am very sorry to our people and our family.

CARMICHAEL: There are hundreds of injured.

Survivors at Phnom Penh's Calmette Hospital told harrowing stories of narrow escapes, a terrible crush and a lack of oxygen.

One 19-year-old man said he had tried to hold a child above him so the boy could breathe, even though he was struggling to get enough air himself.

But older people then told youngsters like him they had to jump off the bridge into the river to try and create space.

So he gave the child back, squirmed his way to the edge, and jumped. He said the woman and her two children probably died.

Others told how relatives and friends were killed.

Lying on a rattan mat in the corridor, a drip in his arm, garment worker, Kuth Vy, said he was crossing the bridge with four female colleagues from work when they became trapped. He hasn't seen them since.

Another garment worker, 17-year-old Hy Sophan, was crossing the bridge with relatives, and they too became trapped, unable to move forward or back. Although she cannot swim, she jumped into the river in a desperate bid to escape the crush. Others dragged her to shore.

HY SOPHAN: I will never go to it again. After having seen what happened I am really scared. Next year I will stay at home and won't even go out for a walk.

CARMICHAEL: Forty-year-old construction worker So Phum, recovering on a mat in the hospital corridor, spoke for many.

SO PHUM: In my opinion the government must focus on better security. In my whole life I never saw anything like that.

CARMICHAEL: Governor Kep Chuktema promises it will.

KEP CHUKTEMA: It is a very big lesson for me, for my authority. We will organise the big Water Festival with the big way to secure the people, because the Water Festival mean for Cambodia is a very big festival.

CARMICHAEL: The government will next week release its final report on this disaster, but it seems clear that nobody is prepared to take responsibility.

The government blames the developer of the Diamond Island entertainment centre for failing to provide enough security. The developer says security was the government's concern.

While the squabbling goes on, the dead have been reclaimed by their families and cremated, and the injured fill the capital's hospitals.

Across Cambodia, the nation is in shock that this happened, and that it took place during the Water Festival, typically a time of joyous celebration.

The government says it will build a memorial at the site. Survivor So Phum has a different idea.

SO PHUM: As far as I am concerned we should demolish that bridge in order to prevent future problems. Although it is a newly-constructed bridge, it has killed so many people. So we should destroy it.


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