At least 59 people were killed and scores injured in Bangkok this morning when fire gutted a popular nightclub where revellers were celebrating the New Year.
Local police said a number of foreigners, including Australians, Nepalese, Japanese and Dutch people, were among the dead at the Santika club, in the Thong Lor district, an area known for entertainment venues. The fire was possibly caused by a pyrotechnics display inside the club. It sparked immediate panic amongst the party-goers, more than 1,000 of them; some were killed during a stampede to escape through the door, which was both the entry and exit.
Bodies wrapped in white cotton sheets were laid out in rows on the pavement outside the club. The nearby parking lot was strewn with victims' shoes. The fire was brought under control by the morning, but a police officer at the scene said that 30 more bodies had yet to be recovered from inside the blackened concrete building. While emergency workers said at least 184 people were injured, police put the number at 130. They were taken to 14 hospitals in the capital, many suffering from burns and smoke inhalation.
Flames were still racing through the building at night as rescue workers dragged bloodied, bruised and burnt victims out of the club before its ceiling collapsed. Many had been trapped. The layout of the two-storey building, which included a number of staircases as well as bars across the second-floor windows, hindered their escape. Most of the bodies were found in the basement.
With 1,000 or so people inside the Santika, according to police, the fire is believed to have been started by fireworks, but it could have been set off by an electrical fault. "We were all dancing, and suddenly there was a big flame that came out of the front of the stage, and everybody was running away," one young woman told Reuters news agency. She said that clubbers were given sparklers soon after midnight, and that as soon as the clocks signalled the beginning of 2009, fireworks started going off inside the dance area, sparking the blaze.
"People started running for the doors and breaking the windows," she said. Other survivors suggested that the fire was caused by sparks flying from a pyrotechnics countdown on the stage, where a band was playing at the time. Revellers had also brought firecrackers into the club. Another witness, Tos Maddy, heard what he thought was an electrical explosion. "Everything went boom and people started running," he said. "The fire went very quickly."
One firefighter, Watcharapong Sri-saard, said the club had a second door at the rear of the building which was known only to staff. The rescue operation was delayed by the heavy New Year's traffic in Bangkok, and the large number of cars parked at the club.
While Bangkok is well known for its night life, its clubs have often been the subject of safety concerns. The Santika, according to a website about the city's entertainment scene, attracts "an affluent Thai student crowd, with Euro models and Westerners also popping in", and a "whisky-sipping crowd all focused on a large stage".