- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

UPDATED:

BANGKOK | A fire swept through a high-class nightclub jammed with several hundred New Year’s revelers early Thursday, killing at least 59 people and injuring about 130, officials said.

A number of foreigners were among the casualties from the blaze that erupted shortly after midnight at the Santika Club in Bangkok’s entertainment district.

Victims died from burns, smoke inhalation and injuries during the stampede to escape from the club, which had only one door for the public, police Maj. Gen. Chokchai Deeprasertwit said. Firefighters said a door at the rear was known only to the staff.

Video footage of the disaster showed bloodied, bruised and burned victims being dragged out of the burning club or managing to run through the door or shattered windows. The video — provided to AP Television News by rescue workers — showed flames racing through the entire building even as the rescue operation was going on.

Police Gen. Jongrak Jutanont put the death toll at 59, which included an undetermined number of foreigners. He said that among the injured were nationals of Australia, Nepal, Japan and the Netherlands.

Most of the victims were confirmed dead at the club, but at least one person died at a hospital. Workers counting bodies told the Associated Press that about 130 others were injured. Rescuers said they believed other bodies were still inside the blaze-gutted building, which has two stories and a basement.

Gen. Chokchai said that the fire may have been caused by firecrackers brought into the Santika Club by guests or sparks flying from a New Year’s countdown display on the nightclub stage.

The club was packed with about 1,000 celebrants, according to police officers who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Most of the bodies were found in the basement of the club, which attracts a well-heeled crowd of Thais and foreigners, rescuers said. The corpses, placed in white body bags, were laid out in rows in the parking lot in front of the club.

The emergency workers said the rescue operation was delayed because of heavy New Year’s traffic in the Ekamai entertainment district and the large number of cars parked at the club.

Firefighter Watcharapong Sri-saard said that in addition to a lack of exits, a number of staircases inside the club as well as bars across the second-floor windows made escape difficult.

An AP reporter who peered inside the still burning building said everything in sight had been burned.

One local Web site about the entertainment scene in Bangkok described the club as attracting “an affluent Thai student crowd, with Euro models and Westerners also popping in” with a “whiskey-sipping crowd all focused on a large stage.”

Another site said that the high ceiling and a cross in the main room made one feel “like walking into a church.”

Christopher Blake contributed to this report.

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