Death toll approaches 350
Monday, November 22, 2010
More than 300 people were killed and hundreds injured tonight after a stampede broke out among crowds taking part in a festival in the Cambodian capital.
People panicked as they tried to make their way over a densely packed bridge and many were crushed underfoot or fell over the sides during the final day of the Water festival, one of the main events of the year in Cambodia. One witness who arrived shortly after the stampede said there were "bodies stacked on bodies".
Describing the chaos as the "biggest tragedy" to strike his country since the killings under the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in the 1970s, the prime minister, Hun Sen, said that 345 people had been killed and 320 injured. State television said at least 240 of the dead were women, according to hospital reports.
Ambulances raced back and forth between the river and the hospitals for several hours after the stampede as the dead and injured were taken away from the scene, which was littered with hundreds of shoes left behind by the living and the dead. Rescuers also looked in the darkness for the bodies of the drowned.
Amid desperate scenes at Calmette hospital, Phnom Penh's main medical facility, wards were filled to capacity with bodies as well as patients, some of whom had to be treated in hallways. One doctor said the two major causes of death were suffocation and electrocution.
But despite suggestions that some of the dead had been electrocuted by the lights on the bridge, the Cambodian government insisted that no one was electrocuted. Many of the injured were badly hurt, raising the prospect that the death toll could rise as hospitals became overwhelmed.
In the third of three post-midnight live television broadcasts, the prime minister said that he had ordered an investigation and declared that Thursday would be a national day of mourning.
A Cambodian embassy official in Washington said that 4 million people had descended on Phnom Penh for the three-day water festival, which marks the end of the rainy season and whose main attraction is the traditional boat races.
The last race ended early on Monday evening, the last night of the holiday, and the panic started later on Koh Pich Diamond Island, a long spit of land wedged in a fork in the river, where a concert was being held. Seeking to escape the island, part of the crowd pushed on to a bridge, which also jammed up, with people falling under others and into the water.