- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2010

BANGKOK | Cambodian officials are investigating why thousands of revelers panicked during a festival in Phnom Penh on Monday and stampeded across a narrow bridge, killing at least 378 people and injuring scores more.

Emergency teams, survivors and distraught relatives and friends desperately searched on Tuesday among corpses strewn on the bridge and floating in the river.

Many of the dead were later laid on the ground in rows, under white cloth, at hospitals before being packed into coffins for cremation.

Police wearing white rubber gloves gently lifted the hands of the dead and pushed their limp fingertips onto blackened ink pads and then onto paper, for identification records.

Authorities also posted photographs of victims for public viewing, hoping to identify the dead and injured.

The tragedy occurred Monday night during the final celebration of the three-day Water Festival, which marks the end of the tropical rainy season in the impoverished Buddhist-majority country.

Trapped on a 250-acre island in the Tonle Bassac River where the festival was staged, hundreds of people tried to flee across the short, narrow bridge, but began shoving and trampling each other in a melee, while others jumped or fell into the murky water below.

Phnom Penh police Chief Touch Naroth said investigators were still trying to determine the cause but suggested that the bridge’s small size may have contributed to the tragedy, the Associated Press reported. “This is a lesson for us,” he said on state TV.

Some witnesses said trouble began when a handful of people fainted because of the heat and physical pressure of the large crowd, causing others to nervously try to escape.

Some of the crushed victims writhed in agony, too weak to free themselves from the corpses and injured people who were piled on top of them on the bridge, but rescuers were able to yank some people out alive.

Phnom Penh’s main Calmette Hospital was quickly overrun by too many injured and dying people and not enough beds, staff or medicine to treat them.

“The scale of this tragedy has overwhelmed the government hospitals,” said Esther Halim, country director of World Vision, a U.S. Christian humanitarian organization.

“There were people lying in the corridors waiting for treatment, and many relatives arriving at the hospital looking for their loved ones and in a most distraught state,” she said.

“Some people were crushed to death under four or five layers of people during the stampede.”

A government spokesman, Phay Siphan, said the total casualty count was more than 1,000, with 378 people killed and 755 injured, the Associated Press reported.

Authorities said there were no foreigners among the dead or injured.

Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered an investigation into the disaster and said the government would pay the families of each dead victim 5 million riel ($1,250) for funeral expenses and provide 1 million riel ($250) for each injured person.

“This is the biggest tragedy we have experienced in the last 31 years, since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime,” said Hun Sen, who declared Thursday as a national day of mourning.

In 1975 after the U.S. pullout of the Vietnam War, Communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas seized Phnom Penh, forced its entire population into the jungle and began the infamous “killing fields” regime under the leadership of Pol Pot.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished during Pol Pot’s reign until Vietnam invaded Cambodia in January 1979.

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