Fireworks blamed for Thai club inferno

Dozens killed in blaze as New Year's Eve revellers stampede for a single exit
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The Independent Online

Four Britons were among hundreds injured in a Bangkok nightclub fire that killed at least 61 yesterday.

Two remained in intensive care last night as the death toll from the inferno, thought to have been caused by fireworks let off inside the crowded Santika Club during New Year celebrations, was expected to rise.

Some died during a stampede towards the one public exit, while others were trapped inside, with the blaze sweeping through the two-storey building in 10 minutes. A local police forensic expert said it might take a week to identify almost 30 badly disfigured bodies.

Speaking from his hospital bed, Alex Wargacki, aged 29 a foreign exchange trader from Finchley, north London, described how he was dragged to safety by a stranger after he collapsed and lost consciousness. "I woke up and heard this voice saying, 'Come on. Come on this way.' Then I felt myself being dragged towards an exit. A crowd of people parted in front of me and then I was out in the open air.."

Mr Wargacki had been celebrating New Year's Eve with friends to rap and hip-hop music in the club when the fire started shortly after midnight. "Suddenly to the right of the stage, I saw a firework being let off among a crowd of partygoers. It shot right across the room. I don't know exactly how long but it seemed no time at all when the whole place, walls and ceilings were ablaze.

"Then everyone started running for the door. But the door seemed tiny and people were jammed up against it. If there was another way out, none of us knew about it, and all the windows were barred. There were flames from the floor to the ceiling. I could hear windows cracking and breaking in the heat. I blacked out and fell to the floor. That's when I heard the voice."

He continued: "I guess I always knew the place was a bit of a death trap. But that's like so many places here. That's Thailand. You come to expect it. I have worked here for four years and got used to it." Mr Wargacki was taken to the Samitivej Hospital along with fellow Briton Oliver Smart, 35, who was still unable to speak last night.

The other two Britons are Adam Butler and Steven Hall, from South Wales. Mr Hall was treated at the city's Bamrungrad Hospital for burns to his back and hand.

Mr Hall said: "About 12.30 or 12.45, I saw flames billowing out across the ceiling. At first I thought it was part of the show, along with everybody else I think, but I noticed the look of terror on the people's faces on the actual stage and I instantly realised it wasn't. I could feel the heat almost straight away... it was burning my back."

The club was hosting a "Goodbye Santika" party because it was due to close. Thai officials said it was packed with 1,000 revellers when the fire began. In Bangkok, safety regulations are only patchily enforced. The local police chief, Lieutenant General Jongrak Jutanont, told The Nation newspaper that an initial investigation had established that the Santika's safety system was "sub-standard".

Those inside the club were hindered by the lack of exits, as well as bars on the second-floor windows. Most of the bodies, which were ferried from the scene in pick-up trucks, were found in a pit area surrounding the stage. A second exit, at the rear, was known only to staff.

About 200 people were injured, among them 35 foreigners, and at least 10 non-Thais were among those killed.

Sompong Tritaweelap, who lives behind the Santika, in the central Ekamai entertainment district, said: "Everyone was pushing against each other, trying to get out to the front door as quickly as possible. I saw people, particularly girls, being pushed away and crushed as others were stomping on them, trying to get out."

He added: "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."

Witnesses said the countdown to 2009 was accompanied by a pyrotechnics display which sent sparks flying from the stage, where a band was playing. Earlier, sparklers had been handed out to clubbers, some of whom had taken firecrackers with them.