PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – 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 that left at least 378 dead and hundreds injured.
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 of Phnom Penh late Monday. Many people were crushed underfoot or fell over its sides into the water. Disoriented victims struggled to find an escape hatch through the human mass, pushing in every direction. After the stampede, bodies were stacked upon bodies on the bridge as rescuers swarmed the area.
The search for the dead in and along the 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. Some 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.
Paul Hurford, an Australian who runs a charity training firefighters in Cambodia, said he and several colleagues were called in not long after the stampede occurred. He said all they could do was quickly pick out the dead from the living and try to help the survivors.
"I've never come across something with such mass casualties ... in such a small area," he said. "This was a devastating situation, no matter how you look at it."
Cambodia's prime minister called it the country's biggest tragedy since the murderous 1970s reign of the Khmer Rouge.
It remained unclear what sparked the stampede. Police and witnesses pointed to the narrow bridge as providing inadequate access to and from the island. Authorities had closed another bridge earlier in the day, forcing tens of thousands of people to use a single span.
One witness said the trouble started when several people fell unconscious in the press of the crowd. Another survivor said he heard a police siren just before the panic erupted.
Calmette Hospital, the capital's main medical facility, was filled to capacity with bodies as well as patients, some of whom had to be treated in hallways. Crying relatives searched for loved ones.
"I was taken by shock. I thought I would die on the spot. Those who were strong enough escaped, but women and children died," said Chea Srey Lak, a 27-year-old woman who was knocked over by the panicked crowd on the bridge.
She managed to escape but described a woman, about 60 years old, lying next to her who was trampled to death by hundreds of fleeing feet.
A government spokesman, Phay Siphan, said the total casualty count was more than 1,000, with 378 people killed and 755 injured. But this, he said, was not the final count. Authorities said there were no foreigners among the dead or injured.
"This is the biggest tragedy we have experienced in the last 31 years, since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime," Prime Minister Hun Sen said, referring to the ultra-communist movement whose radical policies are blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million people during the 1970s.
He ordered an investigation into the cause of the stampede and declared Thursday would be a national day of mourning. He 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.
City police chief Touch Naroth said Tuesday that investigators were still trying to determine the cause but suggested that the bridge's small size may have contributed to the tragedy. "This is a lesson for us," he said on state TV.
The prime minister's special adviser, Om Yentieng, denied reports that the panic was sparked by people being electrocuted by lighting cables or by a mass food poisoning.
Authorities had estimated that upward of 2 million people would descend on Phnom Penh for the three-day water festival, the Bon Om Touk, which marks the end of the rainy season and whose main attraction is traditional boat races along the river.
The last race ended early Monday evening, and the panic started later on Koh Pich — Diamond Island — a long spit of land wedged in a fork in the river where a concert was being held. It was unclear how many people were on the island.
Soft drink vendor So Cheata said the trouble began when about 10 people fell unconscious in the press of the crowd. She said that set off a panic, which then turned into a stampede.
Seeking to escape the island, part of the crowd pushed onto the bridge, which also jammed up, with people falling under others and into the water.
A Singaporean businessman named Sonny who was running a sound-and-light show on the island Monday night said after people began collapsing firefighters sprayed the crowd, apparently to try to calm it down. The man, Sonny, who asked not to use his surname so as not to jeopardize his business contacts, also said that it was at least 1½ hours after the bridge was mostly cleared before police and ambulances arrived.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith denied that authorities fired water cannons.
Cambodia is one of the region's poorer countries, and has an underdeveloped health system, with hospitals barely able to cope with daily medical demands. Hun Sen called on foreign investors and tourists not to shun the country because of the accident.
Koh Pich used to host a slum community, but in recent years the poor have been evicted to make way for high-rise and commercial development, most yet to be realized. When the slum dwellers were evicted, the area was handed over in 2006 to a company controlled by a tycoon connected to Hun Sen.