The Cambodian government has said at least 378 people died and more than 750 were injured in a stampede at the end of one of the country’s most popular festivals.
Hundreds were crushed on this bridge that connects mainland Phnom Penh to Diamond Island
The streets of Phnom Penh were filled with the sound of sirens on Monday night from ambulances racing to and from the bridge where the stampede took place. The city’s hospitals were overwhelmed.
Fleets of vehicles carried the injured through the city's streets, which were still packed with Cambodians celebrating the end of the three-day Water Festival.
Pick-up trucks and minibuses were used for the dead, and by early morning corpses had filled the outdoor mortuary at Calmette Hospital.
Almost 400 people were killed in the stampede
Police moved through a large white tent taking the fingerprints of those who were unidentified.
Outside, relatives who had found the bodies of their loved ones finalized paperwork with the authorities, and were given money to help them meet funeral expenses.
Over a thousand people jammed on the bridge
Eyewitnesses said that well over a thousand people had ended up jammed on a 100-metre-long pedestrian bridge that leads from Phnom Penh's Diamond Island entertainment area to the mainland.
A drinks vendor said barriers on the mainland side had been set up to prevent people spilling on to the road but so many people were leaving the island just after 9.30 pm on Monday that there was not enough runoff space.
19-year-old Buot Panha says he will never go back to the Water Festival
That meant that more people were coming on to the bridge from the back, and fewer were able to leave from the front. The result was a crush, in which nearly 400 died.
Encouraged to jump to free up space
Buot Panha, a 19-year-old Cambodian visiting the Water Festival for the first time, found himself jammed in the middle of the bridge with four friends.
He said an older man told them they should jump over the side of the bridge since that would free up space.
"The reason I jumped was to create more room for other people," Buot Panha said. "To make more room on the bridge. And while I was on the bridge I also tried to save the life of someone’s child."
He said that a woman next to him was – like everyone else – jammed and could not move. Her children were stuck too and struggling to breathe.
He said she begged people to help her children, and he grabbed one of them and lifted him above the throng.
But he was struggling to breathe himself and when the older man told him and other young men to jump, he handed the child back.
"The two children probably died, and the mother too. She was yelling for people to help, but I could only help one child. I was stuck in the middle of the bridge and fortunate to be tall, but I couldn’t move – not forward or backward."
Hundreds of Buddhist monks gathered to pray on Tuesday
Buot Panha said his first Water Festival would be his last. He could not believe so many had died, and how close he had come to death.
He told me he would never come back to the capital for another Water Festival.
Monks pray for the dead
Late on Tuesday evening, 500 Buddhist monks assembled at the bridge where a shrine has been set up.
They offered prayers for the dead, burned incense, and scattered flowers.
The government has established a committee to determine what caused Cambodia’s most serious loss of life in decades.
However, given what eyewitnesses have told me, poor planning and a lack of crowd control that allowed people to surge onto the bridge will likely be among the key problems identified.
Author: Robert Carmichael
Editor: Anne Thomas