By SETH MYDANS
Published: November 25, 2010
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — More than two days after hundreds of people died in a huge, tightly jammed crowd on the last night of a water festival, both the cause and the death toll remained unclear on Thursday.
Most of the victims were caught in a crush on a small bridge. Rather than being trampled, the victims suffocated or were crushed to death by a dense, immobile crowd in which some people were trapped for hours.
Various officials gave different counts of the death toll, which in may not include victims who drowned or were taken from the scene.
On Wednesday the government said at least 350 people had died and 400 were injured. But among other tallies on Thursday, the Phnom Penh Post newspaper, citing government sources, said the death toll had climbed to 456.
As grief and shock turned to demands for explanations, questions grew on Thursday over the cause of the crush, over the response by the police and over the city’s readiness to handle an influx of as many as 3 million people for the festival.
A preliminary government investigation reported that the mostly rural holiday-goers panicked when the suspension bridge began to sway slightly under the weight of the crowd.
This conformed with a report by a military police investigator, Sawannara Chendamirie, who said on the morning after the disaster that survivors told him there had been shouts that the bridge was collapsing.
There have been reports, beginning immediately after the disaster, that some people were electrocuted, possibly by strings of lights on the fretwork of the bridge. Some reports said the police fired water hoses at the crowd that might have contributed to this.
But doctors at Calmette Hospital, the city’s main hospital, said they had seen no sign of electrocution among either the injured or the dead. They said this absence of evidence did not rule out the possibility, but they said most of the injured had suffered from the squeezing of the packed crowd. Some patients at the hospital said they had been unable to breathe and had passed out.
The police came under criticism for a failure of crowd management and for an inadequate and incompetent response to the disaster. One officer said only half the officially reported number of police were actually deployed. Badly injured survivors reported being dumped into vehicles together with the dead.
The government did quickly mobilize help for relatives of victims, many of whom traveled from distant provinces to claim the dead. Tables were set up near a makeshift morgue to confirm identities. Military trucks offered transportation home for coffins and family members. The morgue was all but cleared within a day, although some people wandered the hospital grounds holding snapshots of missing relatives.
The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission issued a report that documented the questions and criticisms.
“While the exact cause of the stampede last night remains unclear, with contradictory reports indicating it may have been instigated by either crowd antics or poor construction of the bridge to Koh Pich island, the failure of the state to control the crowd and limit the damage from the stampede is clear,” the report said.
“It is clear, too, that Phnom Penh was unprepared for any large-scale disaster,” the report said. “Responses by police and military were lacking and may even have contributed to the stampede while hospitals were overwhelmed. Emergency and medical personnel resorted to piling bodies together, covering them with mats or sheets.”