Cambodia stampede kills 375 and leaves government seeking answers

'We need to draw lessons from it,' says the government spokesman. A special investigative committee has been tasked with finding the cause of the deadly Cambodia stampede.

By , Correspondent , Staff Writer

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    Cambodian police officers stand behind a barricade at the site where people stampeded during a water festival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 23.
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A day after a Cambodia stampede killed at least 375 people and injured more than 750, a pall fell over the capital as a national day of mourning shuttered schools and businesses and a difficult task began for the government.

A special investigative committee is seeking to determine what caused the tragedy and what can be done to prevent it from reoccurring.

“We set up an investigative committee to shed a light on this. We need to draw lessons from it,” says Cambodia's Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith.

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Whatever the committee finds, it seemed immediately apparent that Phnom Penh was unprepared to handle a massive influx of tourists that nearly tripled the city’s population to 6 million and clogged roads and bridges during the annual Water Festival. The Tourism Ministry had promoted the festival nationally and internationally with travel packages, although it was unclear if the government increased basic safety measures such as crowd control ahead of the event.

Security focused on water, not land

Tragedy has struck during the festival in past years and safety precautions this year appeared to focus on water activities. One civilian drowned this year when wading into the Bassac River, one rower died in 2009, and five Singaporean rowers drowned in 2008 when their boat capsized.

“We concentrated our security on the water,” says Mr. Khieu. “From the beginning, [Prime Minister] Hun Sen made recommendations to check all the possible risks. Everybody was looking on the security on the water, and then this happened.”

Some 10,000 people crammed late Tuesday night onto a newly built bridge – 10 times its capacity, says Khieu – that crosses from the capital over the Bassac River to a man-made entertainment island where a festival was being held to conclude the annual Water Festival.

The bridge clogged in the late evening, eyewitnesses and victims told the Monitor, with a stampede beginning around 11 p.m. The death toll rose hourly, with the Associated Press reporting 378 dead late Tuesday, and officials expecting the toll to continue to rise.

The festival marks the end of the rainy season and a time of rest from work in the rice fields, allowing millions of Cambodians to visit the capital and watch the massive boat races that pass in front of the Royal Palace. More than 400 boats participated in the three-day event, says Khieu, about 100 more than in 2009. Up to 4 million people attended, possibly 1 million more than last year.

Monks hold ceremony at bridge

Hundreds of mourners gathered Tuesday afternoon as monks in orange robes and elderly nuns in white blouses – the color of mourning – held a ceremony at the entrance to the small bridge, on which heaps of shoes, hats, and other abandoned belongings remained.

Cambodian students posted condolence messages on Facebook. Some people said Diamond Island, which until now had been the most popular spot for weddings in the city, would no longer attract young couples.

Cambodia’s King Father Norodom Sihanouk – the father of the sitting king – pledged $200 to the family of each person who died, and $100 for each who was injured. Prime Minister Hun is also providing compensation – 5 million riel ($1,230) for families of the deceased, and 1 million riel ($246) for families of the injured – and taking care of the transportation of the bodies back to the provinces.

The United Nations says about one-third of the impoverished nation lives on less than $1.25 a day, and 1 in 3 people is considered food insecure.

'Memory will haunt us'

Yet questions remained: What caused the tragedy and what could prevent it from repeating itself in the future?

“We won’t jump to any conclusions,” says Khieu, the government spokesman.

He downplayed reports that suggested the stampede was sparked by an electrocution or by police firing a water canon at civilians. He says hospital autopsies revealed no signs of electrocution, with deaths primarily from asphyxiation and internal injuries. Police did not fire a water canon at civilians, Khieu says, but tossed only water bottles to those stuck on the bridge for hours.

“We don’t know how people got stuck,” says Khieu. He did speculate that bridge itself might have attracted villagers interesting in walking the city’s first suspension bridge, which opened this year. “They felt the bridge was shaking. They didn’t realize it was normal for a suspension bridge,” he says.

As the government’s investigative committee seeks answers, lack of crowd control seems all but certain to be a major contributing cause to the incident, which the prime minister called the worst tragedy to befall the nation since the Khmer Rouge.

“This memory will be haunting us,” says Khieu.

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