Cambodia stampede kills at least 375 at festival

Cambodia searched for answers on Tuesday a day after a stampede killed at least 375 people on a suspension bridge where survivors said they were wedged into the crowd of living and dead for hours.

The government launched an investigation into why thousands panicked late on Monday on the pedestrian bridge connecting Phnom Penh to an island where mostly young people celebrated the last day of a festival marking the end of the rainy season

Survivors recounted scenes of mass suffocation and desperate screams after thousands went into a frenzy to flee the bridge, apparently after shouts went up that some people had been electrocuted. Police said some also shouted that the bridge was about to collapse.

The victims suffocated or were trampled and some survivors said they were wedged into the crowd for hours. Police sprayed water so survivors could drink. About 755 people were injured.

“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 spokesperson, 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.”

“I thought I was dead”
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 apologised 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.

The narrow bridge connects Phnom Penh to the man-made Diamond Island, also known as Koh Pich, a commercial park that opened this year. Private interests, along with municipal and national authorities, organised events including a music performance and trade fair as part of the annual Bon Om Touk water festival.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said some people crossed over a larger vehicle bridge on the opposite end of the island. Many of those people attempted to leave by walking back to the mainland over the pedestrian bridge, where they ran into revellers 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 2-million people would flock to Phnom Penh, nearly doubling the city’s population. Revellers traditionally gather on the riverfront to take part in festivities such as dragon boat races and fireworks.

Organisers should have foreseen the danger of holding events for the first time on an island with such limited access, said Yim Sovann, spokesperson 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. — Reuters

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