Bon Om Touk or ‘The Water Festival’, held in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is a three-day-long celebration of the end of the monsoon season and the semiannual reversal of flow at the Tonle Sap River. The festival is held at Koh Pich or “Diamond Island” and is the biggest Cambodian celebration drawing in as many as 1/3 of Cambodia’s 14 million residents each year. On Sunday, November 21, 2010 approximately 4 million people were attending the festival on its third and final day. The Rainbow Bridge, or the north bridge, was built specifically for the 2010 Water Festival as a 164-foot (50 meters) long one-way path for people leaving the celebration on the island to return to the city. Those who were entering the festival from the city were to use the south bridge; However, regulations at the festival were lax and The Rainbow Bridge was closer to the excitement so many chose to use it, regardless of which direction they were traveling. Many had gathered on the bridge to get a better view of the boat race as the festival crowd grew in anticipation of a concert that evening. At around 9:30 PM (local time) something occured which led to a tragedy of 70s-disaster-movie-proportions. Due to the chaos that followed, no one is sure what sparked the initial panic. Some believe sightings of the bridge swaying and rumors it would collapse caused mass hysteria in the crowd, others claim they saw rope lights on the bridge beginning to spark. More likely theories claim a fight broke out leading police to fire a water cannon at the bridge which caused bystanders to run out of the way. Employees of ‘So-Cheata’, a soft-drink vendor at the festival said ten people fainted (rumored to be due to mass food poisoning) and caused others nearby to panic. Whatever the cause, well over a thousand people who were on the bridge at that time were compacted together, knocked over and entangled in a massive pile-up which led to hundreds of fatalities as those trapped at the bottom were trampled and crushed to death by the crowd. Sean Ngu, an Australian visiting friends and family in the country described the horror he witnessed, “There were too many people on the bridge and then both ends were pushing. This caused a sudden panic. The pushing caused those in the middle to fall to the ground, then [get] crushed. Panic started and at least fifty people jumped into the river. People tried to climb on the bridge, grabbing and pulling [electrical] cables which came loose and electrical shock caused more death.”. Another survivor, Lin, spoke of his experience, “I realized I could not move. I could not go back, I could not go forward. People were pushing from everywhere and there was nothing I could do. I was right in the middle, everyone around me was falling, one on top of the other, they were being crushed. There were dead people all around me.”
Lin’s girlfriend, Ni, was in the middle of the stampede with him and survived as well. Twenty-nine year old Kim Houng claimed if it wasn’t for his brother, he would have died, “I could not move my body. I could not move my legs. It was hard to breathe. They stepped on my head, my face, my body. If not for my brother, I’d be dead… I thought I’d die.” Sadly, Sopheap Meng’s brother was not as lucky; Sopheap grabbed his brother’s hand as tightly as he could, “But there was no air, I could not breathe. I got pushed to the side of the bridge, people were falling all around, onto my arm and I had to let go.”. Sopheap Meng’s brother was found dead later that evening. It took hours for emergency workers to untangle the survivors and remove dead bodies from the bottom of the pile.
Van Thon, 25, remembered witnessing the aftermath, “People were carrying bodies of relatives, including children and woman. Everyone was looking scared.”. Most of the victims were women and children. Of the 347 killed, 240 of the victims were female. An additional 755 people were injured. Accorrding to medical and emergency workers who examined the deceased, the two main causes of death were suffocation and electric shock; However, the Cambodian government denies anyone was electrocuted.
Although this was the third incident in the Water Festival’s history that had resulted in fatalities, it was incomparable to anything that had happened previously; Five rowers had drowned at the festival in 2008 and one in 2009. The Cambodian health system is underdeveloped and hospitals struggle to keep up with daily demand.
A disaster of this proportion completely overwhelmed hospitals in the area which were overcrowded with victims, both living and deceased. Nearby Calmette Hospital set up a white tent on hospital grounds and filled it with uncovered bodies that had yet to be identified. Family members would walk through the tent searching for missing relatives. Once the victim’s identity was confirmed, they were covered with a sheet. Boupha Lak found the body of her daughter inside the tent and spoke with reporters while gently stroking her daughter’s feet, waiting for paperwork to be completed, “She went to the festival to see her friends, but she was alone on the bridge when it happened. Her friends I have seen today, they were on the other side [of the bridge]. She was found on the bridge, crushed underneath all the other bodies. They told me she was on the bottom.”. All the victims’ bodies had been identified and removed by the evening following the fatal disaster.
The following video is footage from a local Cambodian news station covering the incident at the 2010 Water Festival and shows hundreds of people in the human pile-up tangled together. (It is one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen and is definitely worth watching).
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