The body count continued to climb in Phnom Penh on Tuesday after a stampede on a bridge the previous night brought a deadly end to Cambodia's annual Water Festival. Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng who is also the deputy chairman of a hastily established panel of inquiry said that so far, 351 people have died and 395 have been injured in the disaster, amid unofficial reports on domestic television and by government officials that the numbers could be higher.
"This is the biggest tragedy we have experienced in the past 31 years, since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime," Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on one of a series of live broadcasts on Cambodian television in the early hours of Tuesday morning. There are conflicting reports as to what exactly happened. Government officials and eyewitnesses said a crush developed on the bridge to an island on the Tonle Bassac River, as a crowd of young people in their teens and 20s surged toward a music concert on the last day of the festival.
Cambodia's annual Water Festival, a celebration of the start of the dry season and the changing of the direction of the river current, lasts three days and attracts millions of people from outside the capital. Ouk Sokhoeun, 21, was one of those who made the trip to Phnom Penh for the celebrations. Speaking at the city's Calmette Hospital, where his 23-year-old sister was treated for injuries, he told reporters that as the crush got worse, police at first threw water on the crowd to calm the situation and cool down revelers, before using more powerful water cannons. He said the water caused some people to receive electric shocks from the cables lighting up the bridge.
Another injured man, 20-year-old Chheng Sony, who was in the middle of the stampede, said fire engines shot water at the bridge. "The bridge was shaking and moving, causing cables and wires to be cut," he said, lying in the corridor of Calmette Hospital as he received comfort from his mother. "When people held the cables, they received electric shocks." He said some people jumped and others fell into the water. Some were already dead when they hit the river, he added. Chan Chhai Reoun, 25, who was also hurt in the stampede, said he saw police spray water at the crowd but didn't see anyone receiving electric shocks. In the aftermath, the area was drenched in water with clothes and shoes piled on the bridge. The government's official team of inquiry has yet to give a verdict on the causes of death, but doctors and government officials have suggested that suffocation and trampling were responsible in most cases.
On Tuesday, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said investigations were ongoing, as the authorities made announcements on public radio calling for witnesses to come forward to provide evidence. Khieu said the autopsies conducted thus far showed no signs of electrocution and that it was unclear when the investigation would be concluded. Senior representatives of Overseas Cambodian Development Corp., the company that put together the entertainment complex where the disaster took place, gave out $1,000 to the families of each of the dead and $200 to each of the injured at Calmette Hospital. Deputy general manager Charles Vann said security staff at the scene told the company there had been "no electrical fault."
Medical facilities remained stretched by the scale of the tragedy, and with hospital beds full, many of the injured rested on rattan mats in the corridors. On Tuesday afternoon, as authorities worked to figure out what went wrong, bodies that had been laid out to the rear of the hospital were being put on army trucks to be taken home.