PHNOM PENH // Koe Phalla looked at the pedestrian bridge to Diamond Island, its surface littered with shoes and clothing ripped from victims caught in a stampede that killed at least 375 people on the last evening of a festival in the Cambodian capital.
“It’s called Diamond Bridge, but actually it’s the bridge of hell,” he said.
On Monday evening at about 9.30, Mr Koe watched in horror as festival-goers were crushed to death in a panicked crowd trapped on the bridge. In the stark morning light yesterday, he recounted the scene: “I was so scared. I saw people dying and I was shocked. I saw bodies laid out and I heard people falling in the water.”
Many of those close to the railing either fell or jumped into the river about 20 metres below, according to witnesses. Some are reported to have drowned, but officials have yet to calculate the final death toll. Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, told reporters at midday yesterday that the number of deceased was likely to rise along with the number of injured, which he put at about 755.
The government has promised to pay US$1,250 (Dh4,590) to families to cover the costs of funerals, and $250 to those injured. Mr Phay said the government will also launch an investigation into the cause of the stampede. Some survivors told reporters that the stampede began when several people were electrocuted. The bridge was draped in lights and police sprayed water in an attempt to cool down the crowd, which had been crushed into a bottleneck on the bridge. But Mr Phay denied the claim, saying that none of the corpses showed signs of being electrocuted.
Mr Phay said he witnessed the disaster from the riverbank. He said the suspension bridge began to sway, and some who were unaware that it was designed to do so began crying out that it was going to collapse. Panic set in then, he said, and people were suffocated and trampled to death as the crowd surged forward in a desperate attempt to escape.
Mr Phay said people had converged on the bridge from both directions, trapping those in the middle. Some had entered the man-made Diamond Island from a larger vehicle bridge on the other end of the island, and they tried to leave via the pedestrian bridge, where they ran into those attempting to cross in the opposite direction.
He said people had gathered so rapidly that it took police by surprise. “We deployed a lot, but couldn’t respond quickly. The crowd was out of control.”
Mr Phay characterised the tragedy as “an accident”, but some say it was easily avoidable given that authorities expected the massive crowds. Every year, about two million Cambodians pour into the capital from the countryside to take part in the Bon Om Touk water festival, doubling the city’s population.
The festival celebrates the end of the rainy season and the change in direction of the Tonle Sap river as it begins to flow out of a huge lake in the centre of the country and into the Mekong River. Revellers gather along the riverside to watch dragon boat races, fireworks and other events.
This year, for the first time, private interests along with municipal and national authorities organised events including a music performance and a trade fair on Diamond Island, a commercial park that opened in 2009.
Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said organisers should have foreseen the potential for tragedy, and he blamed them for “mismanagement of the event”. With millions of people at the festival, a large number should have been expected to attend the events on Diamond Island, he said. Yet, the pedestrian bridge is only 10 metres wide, providing far too little access.
Mr Yim said officials such as the police chief and the governor of the Phnom Penh municipality should resign. He added that his party has called on the government to make sure the committee charged with investigating the incident is able to act independently.
Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has declared tomorrow a national day of mourning to commemorate what he called the worst tragedy the country has experienced since the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed about 2 million people between 1975 and 1979.
Yesterday afternoon, about 500 monks gathered at the bridge outside the barricade erected by police. As the smell of incense wafted through the air, the monks in saffron robes chanted blessings for the souls of those who died there the night before.
Meanwhile, those searching for missing family members scoured boards outside hospitals as overwhelmed health workers posted an ever increasing number of photos of the deceased.