BANGKOK, Thailand – A fire raced through a two-story nightclub packed with hundreds of well-heeled New Year's revelers early Thursday, killing at least 61 people as they stampeded to escape the raging flames.
More than 200 were injured, including 35 foreigners.
The cause of the fire in a Bangkok entertainment district was under investigation but several witnesses said a fireworks display during the New Year's countdown ignited the blaze.
A number of foreigners were among the casualties at the Santika Club, which attracted an affluent crowd of young Thais and foreigners.
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Steven Hall, a British contractor who was at the club with his new Thai wife, Waranya, told the Times of London it took clubbers some time before they realized the fire was a real danger. When he saw flames begin to move across the ceiling, he thought at first it was part of the pyrotechnics show.
"The flames spread very very fast," he told the Times. "It went straight along the ceiling."
“We were all dancing and suddenly there was a big flame that came out of the front of the stage and everybody was running away,” said Oh Benjamas, another witness, who added that clubbers were given sparklers shortly before midnight.
Hospital rosters showed 13 foreigners were treated for injuries and one man, a Singaporean national, had died. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia said three of its nationals were also among the hospitalized.
"Everybody was pushing against each other trying to get out to the front door as quickly as possible. I saw people, particularly young girls, being pushed away and crushed underneath as others were stomping on them trying to get out," said Sompong Tritaweelap, who lives in an apartment behind the nightclub.
Victims died from burns, smoke inhalation and injuries during the stampede from the club, which had only one door for the public, police Maj. Gen. Chokchai Deeprasertwit said. Firefighters said a door at the rear was known only to the staff, while an Associated Press reporter saw a third door at one side of the building.
Video footage of the disaster showed bloodied, bruised and burned victims being dragged out of the burning, two-story club or managing to run through the door or shattered windows. The video — provided to AP Television News by rescue workers — showed flames racing through the entire building even as the rescue operation was going on.
Sompong said the fire spread through the entire building within 10 minutes.
"People were screaming for help from every window. It was a terrible sight. Their hair and clothes were on fire but there was nothing they could do as the fire engulfed them," he said.
The Phranakorn Center, an official agency dealing with accidents in Bangkok, said at least 61 people died and 35 foreigners were among the injured. The Narenthorn Emergency Center, which was coordinating relief efforts, said more than 200 had been hurt.
A joint roster provided by Bangkok hospitals showed three Japanese, two South Koreans and one Singaporean were treated while another Singaporean identified as Teo Sze Siong had died. The names of seven other foreigners were posted, but no nationalities were given.
One of the Japanese, Wada Keiichi, 25, was in a coma and suffering from burns over 60 percent of his body, doctors said.
Pol. Lt. Col. Sujettana Sotthibandhu, a forensics expert, said it might take about a week to identify almost 30 bodies that were badly disfigured.
Chokchai said the fire may have been caused by sparks flying from a New Year's countdown display on the nightclub stage.
The Nation newspaper quoted one partygoer, Somchai Frendi, as saying the blaze was caused when the countdown fireworks ignited the second floor ceiling, which was made largely of soundproofing material.
Sompong quoted a maid at the club as giving a similar account.
"Some of the sparks fell onto the carpeted floor as well. Within seconds, smoke was everywhere," he quoted her as saying.
Police Lt. Gen. Jongrak Jutanont said the initial investigation found the club's safety system was "substandard" but did not elaborate.
The club was packed with about 1,000 celebrants, police officers at the scene said. Rescue workers said most of the bodies were found in a pit area surrounding the stage.
The corpses, placed in white body bags, were laid out in rows in the parking lot in front of the club, which was strewn with shoes of the victims, water bottles, parking stickers and other debris.
Emergency workers said the rescue operation was delayed in part because of heavy traffic in the Ekamai entertainment district.
Firefighter Watcharapong Sri-saard said in addition to a lack of exits, a number of staircases inside the club as well as bars across the second-floor windows made escape difficult.
An AP reporter who peered inside the still-burning building said everything in sight had been burned.
One Web site about Bangkok's entertainment scene described the club as attracting "an affluent Thai student crowd, with Euro models and Westerners also popping in" with a "whisky-sipping crowd all focused on a large stage." Another site said the high ceiling and a cross in the main room made one feel "like walking into a church."
Just after dawn, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva visited the still-smoldering club but did not talk to reporters. But later, during a visit with the injured at one of the hospitals, he said, "The question is why they let someone take fireworks inside the pub and light them up."
Safety regulations are often loosely enforced. Thailand passed a law in 1994 requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, but bareheaded riders with policemen blithely looking on are a common sight on Bangkok's streets today.