Thousands of people stampeded during a festival in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh last night, leaving more than 330 dead and hundreds injured in what the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, called the country's biggest tragedy since the 1970s reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge.
Some in the panicky crowd – who were celebrating the end of the rainy season on a sliver of land in a river – tried to flee over a bridge and were crushed underfoot or fell over its sides into the water.
A witness who arrived shortly after the stampede described "bodies stacked on bodies" on the bridge as rescuers swarmed the area.
Ambulances raced back and forth between the river and the hospitals for several hours after the stampede. 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.
Many of the injured appeared to be badly hurt, raising the prospect that the death toll could rise as local hospitals became overwhelmed.
Hours after the chaos, the dead and injured were still being taken away from the scene, while searchers looked for bodies of anyone else who might have drowned. Reporters saw one body floating in the river, and hundreds of shoes left behind on and around the bridge.
Hun Sen, in a live television broadcast, said that 339 people had been killed and 329 injured.
He described the chaos as the biggest tragedy to strike his country since the communist rule of the Khmer Rouge, 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. Government ministries were ordered to fly the flag at half-staff.
Authorities had estimated that upward of two million people would descend on Phnom Penh for the three-day water festival, which marks the end of the rainy season and whose main attraction is traditional boat races along the river.
The last race ended early yesterday evening, the last night of the holiday, and the panic started later on Koh Pich, or 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 to celebrate the holiday, though the area appeared to be packed with people, as were the banks.
A 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, with many people caught underfoot.
Seeking to escape the island, part of the crowd pushed on to a bridge, which also jammed up, with people falling under others and into the water.
The Information Minister Khieu Kanharith gave a similar account of the cause. He said a rumour had spread among the revellers that the bridge was unstable.
"So panic started. It was too crowded and they had nowhere to run," he said. Witnesses reported people pushing and shoving in the crowd.
So Cheata said hundreds of hurt people lay on the ground afterward. Many appeared to be unconscious.
Philip Heijmans, a 27-year-old photographer from New York, who arrived at the scene half-an-hour after the stampede, walked up the bridge to see hundreds of shoes and pieces of clothing, then "bodies stacked on bodies".
He counted about 40 in all, with about 200 rescuers in the area. Some Australian firefighters were on the scene, checking pulses before loading bodies into vans.
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. 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 of which is yet to be realised. APReuse content