Nov 24, 2010

Cambodians try to handle aftermath of deadly stampede

November 24 2010
Source: Xinhua

"I went to that island with my boyfriend last night to celebrate the Water Festival, but now I don't know his whereabout...I even don't know whether he is alive or not," said Na Song, a 22-year-old girl lying on a shabby mat along the corridor of the inpatient building of Calmette Hospital.

Na's mother, Thean Veng, said she got the news from Na's friend this morning that her daughter was one of the victims of the deadly stampede on a bridge, connecting an entertainment complex at Diamond Island and the mainland Phnom Penh.

"My daughter had difficulties in breathing and was once in critical condition. Now she still suffers severe stomachache and can eat nothing," said Thean Veng, who was from the Kampong Chuang province.

Monday, the final day of the annual Water Festival of Cambodia, saw at least 375 killed and 755 others injured as a sudden panic among the crowd caused the catastrophic stampede around 9:30 pm local time.

The injuries were rushed to six hospitals across the city, while the medical personnel said they were overwhelmed by so many patients coming up almost at the same time.

Soy Rakmey, a permanent health staff at Calmette Hospital, said that there were 53 patients in this building alone, while many others with minor injuries had left. "We are not worried about the supply of medicines, but we are short of beds," he said.

Beside him, dozens of sufferers of the stampede were lying on the rattan mats, waiting for further diagnosis and treatment.

Vong Sophen, 38, was sitting at the entrance of the inpatient building. His brother Sieng Sanath, 23, hurt his chest in Monday night's crush.

"He is over there," Vong Sophen pointed at a young guy lying indoors on the ground, not far from the entrance, taking drip- feeding. No, he did not know when his brother could be well enough to leave the hospital, said Vong Sophen, adding that he himself, coming all the way from Prey Veng Province on this morning, might have to sleep on the ground just beside his brother tonight.

Calmette Hospital, the largest hospital in the capital city, had seen about 140 deaths from the stampede since Monday night.

Several trucks from the logistics department of the Defense Ministry rested at the yard of the hospital. Meas Thon, a soldier at the department, told reporter that these vehicles are assigned to transport the dead home. "More than 40 trucks started doing this at 2:30 this afternoon," he said.

Not far from Meas Thon, several coffins were being loaded to a truck while on the ground there were a couple of new coffins, still left unpainted.

What led to the deadly stampede remains unclear. Some victims and eyewitnesses said the tragedy occurred due to rumors that the bridge was broken. Some believed a girl who got fainted among the crowd spurred the turmoil. Some blamed a siren blaring for the panic and some think it was the worry of a looming rain that made the crowd rush to the bridge to return home at the same time.

Nobody expected so many people would show up, said Pung Kheau Se, President of Candia Bank, who is also the owner of Diamond Island.

The three-day Water Festival, the largest annual festival in the Southeast Asian nation, attracted over 3 million Cambodians, many from rural areas, converging to the capital city to enjoy the regatta. And the Diamond Island just completed its construction to entertain the public in its first Water Festival.

"The control of pedestrian flow will be the main preventive measure we take in the future, " said Pung Kheau Se, as he came up at Calmette Hospital Tuesday afternoon to give his condolences to the victims there.

He said the rescue work by the government was quick and timely so that even bigger casualties were prevented. He also showed his gratefulness to the charity groups and volunteers who came to help the hospitals, which were struggling to deal with hundreds of patients.

About 70 patients with minor injuries had been discharged, according to a doctor from Calmette. The trauma of Cambodian people, however, may last much longer than their physical pains.

Chek Chan, a 28-year-old man, took his two nieces and a younger brother to join the celebration Monday night but failed to bring back even one of them alive. And he saw his brother was buried underneath the ever-mounting crush.

"I am very, very sorry to see him killed with my own eyes," he said, tears in eyes.