By Tim Johnston and Elaine Moore in Phnom Penh
A picture of Peng Seriwattana, 15, a schoolboy with unruly hair and a direct stare, sat on a table. He had promised to be home by 8.30pm on Monday, but by Tuesday afternoon his body was laid out under a sheet in a temple, his young cousin burning squares of gold paper on an altar in the hope he would have a prosperous afterlife.
Peng Seriwattana was one of at least 378 people killed and more than 755 injured in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, on Monday night when thousands of people leaving an island water festival stampeded on a narrow bridge.
Some survivors spoke of trampling bodies and others of throwing themselves into the shallow water of the Bassac river to escape the crush.
“Many people were trying to move but they couldn’t. There was no air and I felt myself standing on other people,” said Cho Vannath, 21, a student teacher, who described screaming and the whistles of stewards as they tried to channel the revellers.
Local television stations showed footage of desperate, bare-chested men struggling to pull the living from piles of dead on the narrow 50-metre bridge between Koh Pich, an island in the Bassac river, and Phnom Penh proper.
Paul Hurford, an Australian firefighter working with the Cambodian emergency services, said it took him at least 35 minutes to work his way through the crowd to the bridge.
“It is fairly confronting to see 300-plus casualties in an area less than 100 square metres,” he said.
“We were working on the worst ones, those with very faint pulses. We worked on five or six who were very borderline and unfortunately lost them all.”
Hospitals reported that the primary sources of death were asphyxiation, drowning and internal bleeding. They also said that about two-thirds of those who died were women, who may have been less able to extricate themselves from the crowd.
Thousands of people had gathered on Koh Pich to watch a concert and celebrate Bon Om Touk, a festival marking the end of the rainy season which peaks on the night of the full moon with hundreds of traditional boats racing down the river.
It is the biggest festival in the Cambodian calendar, attracting 3m people to the capital, including thousands of tourists, although no foreigners are thought to be among the dead.
The stampede broke out as people were trying to leave the celebrations on the island. Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, was on Koh Pich but left using the only other bridge just before disaster struck.
He estimated that there were 1.5m people on the 100 hectare island. Concerts had just ended at both ends of the bridge and those in the middle were caught with no escape.
“It is a suspension bridge and it started swinging a bit, and the people were not used to it: they started shouting that the was bridge collapsing,” Mr Siphan said.
There were also reports of people being frightened by sparks from the festive lights that deck the bridge, but whatever the cause, survivors say the crowd was soon gripped by panic.
“I tried to get out but couldn’t,” said Soh Pheak, 23, a construction worker with a drip in his arm and water in his lungs who, like dozens of other survivors, was squatting on a thin mat in a corridor of Phnom Penh’s overstretched Calmette hospital. “In the end, I climbed the railings and jumped into the river.”
Boats were still trawling the murky waters of the Bassac on Tuesday afternoon searching for bodies.
In the morning, distraught families were searching through rows of numbered dead laid out in tents in the city’s hospitals: A134, a young woman in an orange T-shirt with sequins; A042, a young man in a white shirt and bleached jeans. A man sobbed over the body of his son, trying unsuccessfully to get the stiffening hands to hold some incense sticks. Families, united in tight knots of distress, tried to make sense of their loss.
Hun Sen, the prime minister, declared a day of mourning and said there would be an inquiry into the causes of the disaster. “This is the biggest tragedy we have experienced in the last 31 years, since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime,” he said.
Mr Hurford had a simple explanation. “The bottom line,” he said, “is that there were far too many people in one place.”
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