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Cambodia mourns worst tragedy since Pol Pot's murderous regime

Rescuers trawled a muddy river for more bodies and Cambodia prepared for a day of mourning following a stampede by thousands of festival-goers which left at least 378 dead.
Image: Women cry as they prepare to carry home the body of their loved one among victims of the stampede placed in a makeshift morgue inside the Calmette hospital
Women cry as they prepare to carry home the body of their loved one among victims of the stampede placed in a makeshift morgue inside the Calmette hospital in Phnom Penh Tuesday.Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: news services

Rescuers trawled a muddy river Tuesday for more bodies and Cambodia prepared for a day of mourning following a stampede by thousands of festival-goers which left at least 378 dead and hundreds of injured.

The prime minister called it the country's biggest tragedy since the murderous 1970s reign of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.

A panic-stricken crowd — celebrating the end of the rainy season on an island in a river — tried to flee over a narrow bridge in the capital Phnom Penh late Monday.

Many people were crushed underfoot or fell over its sides into the water. About 755 people were injured.

Disoriented victims struggled to find an escape hatch through the human mass, pushing their way in every direction.

After the stampede, bodies were stacked upon bodies on the bridge.

The search for the dead in and along the Bassac River continued Tuesday as horrific footage of the night before aired on state television, showing twisted bodies — both alive and dead — piled on one another.

As if trapped in sandSome writhed as they desperately reached out with their hands, the footage showed, screaming for help and grasping for rescuers who struggled to pull limp bodies from the pile as if they were trapped in sand or snow.

It remained unclear what sparked the stampede. Police and witnesses pointed to the narrow bridge as providing inadequate access to and from the island.

Two Singaporean businessmen who organized a sound-and-light show for the festival, said authorities had closed another bridge earlier in the day, forcing tens of thousands of people to use a single span.

Imran, an events planner from Sri Lanka who asked not to use his last name for fear of angering Cambodian clients, said he pulled at least 12 bodies from the crush. Some victims complained of being electrocuted, Imran said, possibly from the wiring for the lights on the bridge, though it was unclear if the electricity had killed people or merely shocked them.

"People were shouting that someone had been electrocuted, to run back," Touch Loch, 18, told Reuters. "I fell and people stepped on me until I passed out. When I woke I was here in hospital. People were crying for their fathers and mothers."

Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, denied anyone was electrocuted on the bridge, which was adorned with flashing lights.

He said it was designed to sway, but the movement took pedestrians by surprise and some shouted it was broken.

"The cause was panic, not electrocution," he told reporters who gathered in front of the bridge, which was littered with shoes and clothing left by victims.

Khon Sros, 19, said from her hospital bed some people had leapt off the bridge to escape but she had been pinned in the crowd from her waist down until police pulled her out.

"One man died near me. He was weak and didn't have enough air," she said.

At the bridge, Chea Chan lit a Buddhist memorial offering of incense, coconut and lotus flowers, and wept.

The 28-year-old had tried to grab his younger brother during the stampede, but he was pushed against the bridge's support poles. His little brother fell and was crushed under four or five other falling people.

He found his sibling dead at a hospital, with a broken neck and crushed face. "I'm totally in shock," he said.

Don Saron, 26, said she was walking across the bridge when people began shouting that it was going to collapse. She tripped and felt the crowds trampling over her face and chest.

"People were just walking here and there and all of sudden, people started to run," she said as she awaited treatment Tuesday at Calmette Hospital. She grimaced in pain as she leaned against a gurney on which she had just woken up nearly 20 hours after being caught in the stampede.

"I shouldn't have been there. Why did I come to this festival, this ceremony?" she said.

Touch Theara, 38, said she had been stuck in the crowd for three hours: "I thought I was dead ... Police sprayed water at us. We were just opening our mouths to drink."

Prime Minister Hun Sen apologized for the disaster and ordered an investigation as television footage showed relatives weeping over bodies of the dead piled one on top of the other.

"This is the biggest tragedy in more than 31 years after the Pol Pot regime," he said, referring to the Khmer Rouge, whose agrarian revolution from 1975-1979 killed an estimated 1.7 million people in Cambodia under the command of Pol Pot.

He declared Thursday a day of mourning and said that 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.

The narrow bridge connects Phnom Penh to the man-made Diamond Island, also known as Koh Pich, a commercial park that opened this year.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said some people crossed over a larger vehicle bridge on the opposite end of the island.

Fireworks, dragon boat racesMany of those people attempted to leave by walking back to the mainland over the pedestrian bridge, where they ran into revelers crossing in the opposite direction.

He said police were unable to control the large crowd. "We deployed a lot, but couldn't respond quickly," he said.

The tragedy raised questions about why so many people were allowed to enter such a confined space.

Ahead of the festival, authorities predicted about two million people would flock to Phnom Penh, nearly doubling the city's population.

Revelers traditionally gather on the riverfront to take part in festivities such as dragon boat races and fireworks.

Organizers should have foreseen the danger of holding events for the first time on an island with such limited access, said Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

Hun Sen ruled out terrorism as a cause for the catastrophe, which took place on the third and final day of the festival, the biggest carnival in a city that was for years starved of entertainment as it recovered from years of war and isolation.

The festival marks the end of the life-giving rains when the swollen Tonle Sap river changes course and begins flowing back out of Cambodia's great lake into the Mekong river.

The stampede was the world's worst since January 2006, when 362 Muslim pilgrims were crushed to death while performing a stoning ritual at the entrance to the Jamarat Bridge near Mecca in Saudi Arabia.