Cambodia In Mourning After Deadly Stampede

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Families are reclaiming the bodies of victims of a stampede in the Cambodian capital that killed more than 300 people and injured hundreds more. Young Cambodians celebrating the conclusion of the annual Water Festival were trampled to death or drowned in what the prime minister has called the worst calamity to befall the nation since the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror more than 30 years ago.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

At least 378 people are dead, 500 injured and many still missing after yesterday's stampede in Cambodia. Today, many families gathered to identify their loved ones. The disaster struck at the end of the Water Festival, when millions of Cambodians make their way to the capital.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Phnom Penh, the cause of the stampede is still unclear. But everyone agrees the result was mass panic.

ANTHONY KUHN: Injured survivors line the hallways of Calmette Hospital, said to be Cambodia's best medical facility. Som Sarath, a 20-year-old college student, lies on a straw mat, smiling feebly. At least he's alive, bruised and battered, but nothing broken. He recalls crowding onto a bridge with other festival goers.

Mr. SOM SARATH: (Through Translator) I heard people yelling that the east side of the bridge was collapsing, and they told people to move west. But other people kept coming at us from the west, and I became trapped in the middle.

KUHN: Som remembers falling on his side. He said he was crushed under a heap of people, some dying, some injured. It took rescuers three hours to pull him out.

Mr. SARATH: (Through Translator) I was stuck on the bottom with perhaps 30 people or so on top of me. It was so painful I almost lost consciousness several times. Some helpful people gave us water. I just struggled to stay alive.

KUHN: The stampede occurred on the third and final day of the Water Festival, Bon Om Touk. It was a day of boat races in front of the royal palace on the Mekong, concerts and feasting under a harvest moon. The stampede appears to have started on the north bridge connecting Diamond Island to the riverbank.

Government spokesman, Phay Siphan, says that despite a large deployment of security personnel, authorities couldn't keep the crowds under control.

Mr. PHAY SIPHAN (Government Spokesman, Cambodia): (Unintelligible) is out of control. Yeah, out of control. We have been deployed - I mean, a lot, but cannot respond like quickly, like if the people buildup very intense over here.

KUHN: Phay was at the scene of the stampede and he dismisses some reports, saying that revelers were electrocuted by lights on the bridge.

Mr. SIPHAN: They panicked. And they panicked, they shout like (unintelligible) broke down, stuff like that. And then they (unintelligible) like jump on each other.

KUHN: State media reported that most of the dead were young women in their 20's. Cambodia is a young and mobile society, and many of the young people had moved to the capital to find work.

Among them was the son of Breung, a 47-year-old man with just one name. Brueng came to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital to retrieve his son's body, which lies in a white plastic body bag.

BREUNG: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: We're from Svay Rieng Province, he says. My son moved to the capitol to work as a construction worker. He went to yesterday's festival and now he's dead. We're a poor family, and we have no choice but to appeal to anyone who can help us.

The Cambodian government has announced it will give condolence payments of $1,250 to the family of each dead victim and $250 to each injured one.

Breung had to borrow money to get to Phnom Penh to retrieve his son's body, so he needs the payment, but he doesn't know where to get it.

Cambodia's government has declared Thursday a day of national mourning for the stampede's victims. Prime Minister Hun Sen called the stampede the worst calamity to befall Cambodia since the deadly rule of the Khmer Rouge some 30 years ago.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Phnom Penh.

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