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Death toll from Cambodia casino fire rises to 26

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January 03, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The death toll at a fire in a Cambodia casino complex on the Thai border rose to 26 people, with 57 injured, as emergency workers ended search-and-rescue work.

The blaze at the Grand Diamond City Casino in Poipet broke out shortly before midnight on Wednesday. Reuters reported that there were around 400 staff and patrons in the building when the fire ignited. 

Photographs showed people shining lights from windows and clambering onto ledges to escape the flames as firefighters tried to control the blaze. 

Thailand sent fire crews and helicopters to fight the blaze and evacuate the injured to hospitals across the border, and Thai media reported that many of the injured were Thai staffers and customers of the casino.

Thai authorities said one Thai national was confirmed dead but did not disclose the name ahead of an autopsy.

Thailand’s Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul said Thursday that 108 people were transferred to Sa Kaeo province but only 34 were admitted to hospitals for injuries there. 

“The conditions ranged from slight to severe. Mostly, they suffered burns, smoke inhalation and breathing difficulties. Some were on ventilators. Some fractured bones by jumping,” Anutin said.

“We give treatment to all injured regardless of nationality on a humanitarian basis,” he said, adding that he had asked the regional health department to send a forensic team and autopsy equipment to identify the dead.

Sek Sokhom, the director of the Information Department for the local Banteay Meanchey provincial government, confirmed to Radio Free Asia that number of casualties could increase as authorities continued search operations this morning. 

“Until now, our search has been suspended … We had to turn off the electricity, so it was too dark to proceed,” he said. 

“Victims who ran to the roof of the building were rescued by helicopter, while high-rise construction cranes rescued more than 50 people,” he added. 

Sek Sokhom said that authorities have not yet been able to determine the exact number of victims, adding that one person died out of the 30 who were seriously injured and sent to Aranyaprathet district for treatment. 

“Among the dead who jumped from the towers … were many nationalities, including Khmer, Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese and so on. We haven’t been able to identify them yet.” On Dec. 30, he said that none of the victims had been identified as Cambodians. 

Firefighters extinguished the blaze at 2 p.m. on Thursday, the AP news agency reported, citing a spokesman for Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey province. Civil society officials told RFA that the deaths were due to the negligence of casino owners and relevant authorities who had skirted building codes.

Poipet commune chief Vachim Nareth told RFA that the fire was caused by an explosion in the casino, and said the flames quickly spread from one building to another. 

“It burned fast because the developers didn’t use enough concrete. They used wood, along with steel and aluminum, so it burned very fast,” he said. 

Relatives of those working at the casino are also looking for answers. Heang Bunnoeun, brother-in-law of one of the victims, said that his sister worked as a janitor and had been missing since the night of the incident. 

“It’s very sad, you can see [from the videos] on Facebook that it was extremely hot, forcing some people to jump. Five people died from jumping and many who were injured were transferred to the Aranyaprathet District Hospital. It was full,” he said, speaking of the hospital in Thailand. 

“But it is unclear whether my sister is in Aranyaprathet or not. She may have died.”

Sum Chankea, the coordinating officer of Cambodia’s ADHOC Human Rights Defenders Association, directly blamed what he described as the negligence of local authorities and the casino’s owners for the incident.

“When an emergency occurred, the power went out and not even the alarm was activated. There wasn’t even emergency equipment to help. The victims were left to crawl out on the window ledges and wave for help,” Sum Chankea told RFA.

“There must be a committee formed to investigate whether the casino was up to standard and whether there was a security system in place for the staff. If you do not obey the rules, you will be held accountable before the law.”

A victim who survived the fire said the casino’s decoration didn’t comply with fire code. He added that there was no fire alarm inside and few exits of the building that trapped some of the victims. He said that authorities also lacked the expertise and equipment to put out the fire.

“The casino used decorations made of plywood, so it was easy to spark the fire. I didn’t know why they couldn’t put out the fire when it started,” he said.