Home > Water Festival Stampede 2010 > Questions Remain in Cambodia Crush

Questions Remain in Cambodia Crush

Source: The New York Times

Mourners offered prayers for the victims of the bridge stampede in Phnom Penh on Thursday.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — More than two days after hundreds of people died in a huge, tightly packed crowd on the last night of a water festival, both the cause and the death toll remained unclear on Thursday.

Most of the victims were caught in a crush on a small bridge. Rather than being trampled, the victims suffocated or were crushed to death by a dense, immobile crowd in which some people were trapped for hours.

Various officials gave different counts of the death toll, which may not include victims who drowned or were taken from the scene.

On Wednesday, the government said that at least 350 people had died and that 400 had been injured. But among other tallies on Thursday, a newspaper, The Phnom Penh Post, citing government sources, said the death toll had climbed to 456.

As grief and shock turned to demands for explanations, questions continued to grow over the cause of the crush, over the response by the police and over the city’s readiness to handle an influx of as many as three million people for the festival.

A preliminary government investigation reported that the mostly rural festival-goers panicked when the suspension bridge began to sway slightly under the weight of the crowd.

This conformed to a report by a military police investigator, Sawannara Chendamirie, who said on the morning after the disaster that survivors told him there had been shouts that the bridge was collapsing.

There were also questions about whether some people had been electrocuted, possibly by strings of lights on the fretwork of the bridge. Reports to that effect began immediately after the disaster, with some saying the police fired water hoses at the crowd that might have contributed to the problem.

Doctors at the city’s main hospital, Calmette, did not rule out that possibility, but said they had seen no sign of electrocution among either the injured or the dead. But they said most of the injured had suffered from the squeezing of the packed crowd. Some patients at the hospital said they had been unable to breathe and had passed out.

The police came under criticism for a failure of crowd management and for an inadequate and incompetent response to the disaster. One officer said only half the officially reported number of police officers were actually deployed. Seriously injured survivors reported being dumped into vehicles together with the dead.

The government did quickly mobilize help for relatives of victims, many of whom traveled from distant provinces to claim the dead. Tables were set up near a makeshift morgue to confirm identities. Military trucks offered transportation home for coffins and family members. The morgue was all but cleared within a day, although some people wandered the hospital grounds holding snapshots of missing relatives.

The Asian Human Rights Commission, based in Hong Kong, issued a report that documented the questions and criticisms.

“While the exact cause of the stampede last night remains unclear, with contradictory reports indicating it may have been instigated by either crowd antics or poor construction of the bridge to Koh Pich Island, the failure of the state to control the crowd and limit the damage from the stampede is clear,” the report said.

“It is clear, too, that Phnom Penh was unprepared for any large-scale disaster,” the report said. “Responses by police and military were lacking and may even have contributed to the stampede while hospitals were overwhelmed. Emergency and medical personnel resorted to piling bodies together, covering them with mats or sheets.”

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