Cambodia searches for cause of stampede that killed hundreds

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The authorities in Cambodia have launched an investigation into the stampede that left at least 378 people dead and hundreds more injured when festival revellers were trapped for hours in a deadly crush on a bridge.

As the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, apologised to the Cambodian people for Monday's tragedy, survivors described how they became caught in huge crowds of the dead and living. Police sprayed people with water to allow them to drink as they struggled to disentangle themselves from the crowds. Tomorrow has been declared a day of national mourning.

Moeurn Piseth Sathya, 15, one of scores of people being treated at Phnom Penh's Preah Ket Mealea Hospital, said: "I felt that I would die, because I couldn't breathe at all. I saw people trying to push up to breathe. It was so hot and stuffy. Nobody could breathe.

"They looked like they were going to die. They were just trying their best to move, but like me, many got stuck. We waited for about two hours until the police came to our rescue."

The crush happened on the narrow bridge that connects Phnom Penh to the man-made Diamond Island, also known as Koh Pich, a commercial park that opened this year where thousands of people were celebrating the final day of water festival celebrations.

One long-term resident of the city said: "With only two bridges providing access to the island, and so many people trying to get on it and off it at the same time, plus the police having no concept of proper crowd control, we're talking about an accident waiting to happen. Unless you are here, its hard to imagine the sheer number of people on the streets of Phnom Penh at water-festival time."

Brightly coloured clothes and shoes remained scattered across the bridge yesterday, while teams continued to search the Bassac River for bodies. Cambodian state television showed gruesome footage of Monday evening's stampede, with piles of convulsing, twisting bodies of people struggling to pull themselves free.

Some reports suggested people may have died after being electrocuted, as they jumped into the river to escape from the crush on the bridge and then tried to pull themselves out of the water with electric cables. But a government spokesman, Phay Siphan, denied this: "The cause was panic, not electrocution," he told reporters. Another survivor being treated at Preah Ket Mealea Hospital was 31-year-old Chea Mary, a father of two. His wife, Yeun Chenda, said he was in a critical condition after being trampled and that he had received injuries to his head. At Calmette Hospital, the Cambodian capital's main medical facility, patients had to be put in the hallways as wards became too full. Yesterday, relatives of those still missing searched various hospitals for their loved ones.

The festival marks the conclusion of vital rains, when the Tonle Sap River changes course and begins flowing back out of Cambodia's great lake into the Mekong River. The authorities had expected around two million people would take part in the celebrations.