Cambodia mourns worst tragedy since Pol Pot's murderous regime

'Those who were strong enough escaped, but women and children died,' survivor who watched elderly woman trampled to death says

Image: Women cry as they prepare to carry home the body of a loved one
Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP - Getty Images
Women cry as they prepare to carry home the body of their loved one among victims of the stampede placed in a makeshift morgue inside the Calmette hospital in Phnom Penh Tuesday. news services news services
updated 2 hours 9 minutes ago 2010-11-23T11:38:05

Rescuers trawled a muddy river Tuesday for more bodies and Cambodia prepared for a day of mourning following a stampede by thousands of festival-goers which left at least 378 dead and hundreds of injured.

The prime minister called it the country's biggest tragedy since the murderous 1970s reign of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.

A panic-stricken crowd — celebrating the end of the rainy season on an island in a river — tried to flee over a narrow bridge in the capital Phnom Penh late Monday.

Many people were crushed underfoot or fell over its sides into the water. About 755 people were injured.

Disoriented victims struggled to find an escape hatch through the human mass, pushing their way in every direction.

After the stampede, bodies were stacked upon bodies on the bridge as rescuers swarmed the area.

The search for the dead in and along the Bassac River continued Tuesday as horrific footage of the night before aired on state television, showing twisted bodies — both alive and dead — piled on one another.

As if trapped in sand
Some writhed as they desperately reached out with their hands, the footage showed, screaming for help and grasping for rescuers who struggled to pull limp bodies from the pile as if they were trapped in sand or snow.

It remained unclear what sparked the stampede. Police and witnesses pointed to the narrow bridge as providing inadequate access to and from the island.

Two Singaporean businessmen who organized a sound-and-light show for the festival, said authorities had closed another bridge earlier in the day, forcing tens of thousands of people to use a single span.

There were reports that before the stampede shouts had been heard that some people had been electrocuted. Police said some also shouted that the bridge was about to collapse.

"People were shouting that someone had been electrocuted, to run back," Touch Loch, 18, told Reuters. "I fell and people stepped on me until I passed out. When I woke I was here in hospital. People were crying for their fathers and mothers."

Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, denied anyone was electrocuted on the bridge, which was adorned with flashing lights.

He said it was designed to sway, but the movement took pedestrians by surprise and some shouted it was broken.

"The cause was panic, not electrocution," he told reporters who gathered in front of the bridge, which was littered with shoes and clothing left by victims.

Khon Sros, 19, said from her hospital bed some people had leapt off the bridge to escape but she had been pinned in the crowd from her waist down until police pulled her out.

"One man died near me. He was weak and didn't have enough air," she said.

'I thought I would die'
One witness said the trouble started when several people fell unconscious in the press of the crowd. Another survivor said he heard a police siren just before the panic erupted.

"I was taken by shock. I thought I would die on the spot. Those who were strong enough escaped, but women and children died," said Chea Srey Lak, a 27-year-old woman who was knocked over by the panicked crowd on the bridge.

She managed to escape but described a woman, about 60 years old, lying next to her who was trampled to death by hundreds of fleeing feet.

"There were cries and calls for help from everywhere, but nobody could help each other. Everyone just ran," she said at Calmette Hospital, where she was being treated for leg and hand injuries.

Touch Theara, 38, said she had been stuck in the crowd for three hours: "I thought I was dead ... Police sprayed water at us. We were just opening our mouths to drink."

Prime Minister Hun Sen apologized for the disaster and ordered an investigation as television footage showed relatives weeping over bodies of the dead piled one on top of the other.

"This is the biggest tragedy in more than 31 years after the Pol Pot regime," he said, referring to the Khmer Rouge, whose agrarian revolution from 1975-1979 killed an estimated 1.7 million people in Cambodia under the command of Pol Pot.

He declared Thursday a day of mourning and said that the government would pay the families of each dead victim 5 million riel ($1,250) for funeral expenses and provide 1 million riel ($250) for each injured person.

The narrow bridge connects Phnom Penh to the man-made Diamond Island, also known as Koh Pich, a commercial park that opened this year.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said some people crossed over a larger vehicle bridge on the opposite end of the island.

Fireworks, dragon boat races
Many of those people attempted to leave by walking back to the mainland over the pedestrian bridge, where they ran into revelers crossing in the opposite direction.

He said police were unable to control the large crowd. "We deployed a lot, but couldn't respond quickly," he said.

The tragedy raised questions about why so many people were allowed to enter such a confined space.

Ahead of the festival, authorities predicted about two million people would flock to Phnom Penh, nearly doubling the city's population.

Revelers traditionally gather on the riverfront to take part in festivities such as dragon boat races and fireworks.

Organizers should have foreseen the danger of holding events for the first time on an island with such limited access, said Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

Hun Sen ruled out terrorism as a cause for the catastrophe, which took place on the third and final day of the festival, the biggest carnival in a city that was for years starved of entertainment as it recovered from years of war and isolation.

The festival marks the end of the life-giving rains when the swollen Tonle Sap river changes course and begins flowing back out of Cambodia's great lake into the Mekong river.

The stampede was the world's worst since January 2006, when 362 Muslim pilgrims were crushed to death while performing a stoning ritual at the entrance to the Jamarat Bridge near Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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