Cambodian Bridge Stampede: An Eyewitness Account of a Unresolved Tragedy
The Koh Pich Bridge Stampede occurred on Monday, the 22nd of November, during the last day and in the waning hours of Cambodia’s annual and ever-popular Water Festival, an ancient celebration, hailing back to the time of the Angkorean Empire. The Water Festival marks the annual reversal of flow of the Tonle Sap river, which meanders, through Phnom Penh. It also is an occasion for competitive boat races, races which rowers practice for all year.
The Water Festival is primarily an excuse to party, Cambodia’s equivalent to Mardi Gras or Carnival, an annual cleansing and purging of the soul. Four million people attended the festival in 2010, most traveling into Phnom Penh from the nation’s rural provinces. The Cambodian police were more confident then they had ever been that they had it together this year and had adequately planned for all contingencies and crime. They were wrong.
Although the incident is referred to as a “stampede,” the word itself is misleading. Contrary to popular perception, death by a human stampede takes a long time. Most people did not die because they were trampled to death, or run over; they died due to what’s called “compressive asphyxiation” or, in simpler terms, “crowd crush.” People were wedged together for hours and passed out. Many were slowly forced down to the bottom of the pile and then cut off entirely from the air. The smallest and the weakest, in the simple physics of crowd stampedes, died first—meaning that the majority of the dead were women and children.
A clear-thinking Khmer photographer took the only photos we have of the people compressed together at the bridge. In the photo, rescuers are trying to pull people out of the crush, and forcing water into the mouths of those lucky enough to be on top of the pile. Many already appear dead or unconscious.
What caused the panic? Maybe it was the cops firing a water cannon into the crowd in a misguided attempt to get people moving. Maybe it was a couple of minor electrocutions, caused by the bridge’s hastily built lighting system. It only takes one or two terrified people to set off a stampede, to create a tragedy.
As for this writer, I got to the Koh Pich bridge when the police had begun the grim work of detangling bodies from one another.
This is what I saw.
I am about to get in my Khmer friend’s tuk-tuk with a colleague, around 11:00 pm, when he turns to me and says, “Hey, did you hear about the bridge collapse over at Koh Pich? Maybe many people dead?” No, I hadn’t. In fact, the stampede had begun around 10:00 PM, and garbled information about what was going on down there was beginning its inevitable spread around the city. And for reasons I ascribed to journalism, I decided to go take a look.
Due to massive holiday-time gridlock, the tuk tuk can’t get much farther than the central city bar where he’d picked me up, and I have to abandon ship.
A man with a motorbike driver pulls over and I leap on. “Take me to the bridge,” I shout, and he knew what I wanted, we now had to weave through crowds, blockage after blockage. I’d tried to cross the Koh Pich bridge from the Nagaworld Casino to Diamond Island just the day before and had been unable to pass, the number of unmoving attendees too great for me to contend with. There seem to be even more people out tonight, this was the last night, the festival’s summation and climax.
“Can’t go further!” the moto man says to me, after we tried and kept on trying for a while to push through. I toss him a buck and begin running down the street, and then I’m at the foot of the Nagaworld Casinoand I have to find a way through the crush of people through a compacted avenue.
I’m off running, waving around my little point-and-shoot camera and my iPhone, shouting MEDIA, MEDIA and being surprised when people wordlessly part to let me through. Trucks, ambulances and jeeps tear through the crowd and everyone dives out of the way when they go, honking and honking.
I push past the massive expanse of the Nagaworld casino, where a lot of people in luxury dresses and black-tie outfits are standing in the drop-off area looking confused. There is a huge concert going on across from Nagaworld, and I can just see the silvery and heavily lighted outline of a girl singing into a microphone on a stage from across the way – the concert that had lured most of the victims in the first place.
I am almost at the bridge now, close enough that I can see it, the rainbow blue and yellow lights, the appendages at the top that do resemble diamonds in a certain lightI run towards the bridge and remember that I had walked across the bridge the previous day, with friends. We had joked with one another about how it swayed unnervingly in the middle and about how many people were on it with us.
Some people now think that the sway of the bridge is what caused the final panic, the fatal one. Maybe some boys yelled out, as a joke, that the bridge was collapsing, and everyone surged forward, broke forward with a final surge of strength, and in so doing, broke themselves.
One more police line to pass. Some people are screaming, but most people are standing around, dazed and silent. Orders are being shrieked in Khmer but I can’t understand them and by this logic, I am not really required to heed them.
The police are using tasers to control the crowd, and they flash purple and crackle with a sound that is entirely their own – the cops are cutting wide swaths through the confused and agitated crowd. I’m screaming, “DON’T TASE ME, DON’T TASE ME, JOURNALIST,” evading the electric purple crackle.
I arrive at the foot of the bridge just as the police are bringing the bodies out and laying them on a patch of trash-strewn grass, all of these sodden people. It is just dark enough to conceal the bruising on their faces and there’s no blood. They look like they’ve passed out. The police are breaking down Angkor beer case cartons, and laying them over their faces in the absence of shrouds.
The cops are almost pushing me toward the bodies, heeding my shouts of MEDIA MEDIA, and I don’t want to go further but am in a sense compelled by both the police and the crowd. Take the picture, take the picture, take the picture, I’m thinking to myself, and I’m saying “I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do this,” every time the camera flashes and I’m still doing it, apologizing to the dead.
The police are dragging the injured out by their hands and feet ignorant of the medical notion of traction. The sodden people dip in the middle their clothes half-removed, their feet bare and blackened with dirt. They have lost their shoes somewhere in the scrum.
The victims are all young, very young. One girl’s skinny pelvic bones are exposed, her arms laying limp at the side of her body. They are laid out in rows like I’ve seen fish laid out at the local market, sodden and dripping, limp. They have died only a few minutes ago, and they have not yet had a chance to stiffen, to lose the appearance of life. People, some police and some bystanders, are waving clothes and errant bits of paper over their faces, trying to get them some air in the hope they are merely passed out, have only succumbed temporarily.
The people’s faces are purple and black and bruised, but there is a curious lack of blood on their bodies. They are lying on a layer of trash, the same kind of post-festival trash that we associate with Mardi Gras or New Years Eve.
The huge military trucks are arriving now, and the ambulances with them. There not enough ambulances, and even the casino’s VIP vans have been brought to the scene. The people are lifted roughly into the vans and then the vans are full, and then the police jeeps are filled with bodies as well. The bodies are stacked upon one another and intertwined, jammed together—there is no time to worry about their orientation, there is only time to convey them elsewhere.
I run behind the slowly-moving jeeps for a while, taking photographs, and then they are gone – off in the direction of a back-alley, where they can get away – and most of the bodies are gone as well. There are people around me who saw it all and I want to talk to them. “Does anyone speak English?” I shout, grabbing shoulders.
A young Khmer man comes out of the darkness, and he takes me by the elbow. “I get you through,” he says, “go look,” and he does, we’re pushing through the rows of people lined up besides the water.
The cop waves me through the crowd, and we’re standing with the line of people looking down into the water now, all of us straining our eyes to see something. A man tells me some people fell off the bridge to save themselves, and that some of them survived because of that. And some of them did not – they hit the cement around the water-way and cracked their skulls. I cannot see onto the bridge well, but the cops are still on it, and it looks like they’ve got almost the bodies off.
I am thinking about how I can get onto the bridge when a young man with a German accent appears behind me, wearing a green shirt and agitated, his arm covered in a layer of mud. “What’s going on, did you see it?” I tell him.
“No, no, I come to help!” he screams back. There is a two second pause where we regard each other, the noise going on around us, a brief sizing-up.
“Hold my iPhone, it’s recording,” I shout. “FOLLOW ME.” And he does.
The police are guarding the bridge now—I don’t think they are entirely certain what to do—but they are letting journalists through, and a couple of guys with cameras start to walk across. They let us walk across too.
The bridge is a sea of shoes; all kinds, all makes and models, high heels and flip flops with cartoon characters on them, sneakers and high tops, all the way up to our ankles. There are abandoned clothes here, too, shirt and jeans, wadded up and covered in mud and water. We pick through the sea of shoes as delicately as we can, but there’s no way we can avoid treading upon those endless pairs of abandoned shoes, no way we can go around them, and we shuffle through them as one shuffles through autumn leaves.
“I can’t imagine – how anyone could be so terrified, to abandon their shoes,” the German says, his voice awed, still speaking into my iPhone. (As I would find out later, the mass loss of shoes and clothing is common to stampede incidents. Crushing and compression literally wrenches them off).
We go to the edge of the bridge and look down into the water, which is shallow and dark, and the little dredging boats are already beginning their slow scouring of the bottom. The swan pleasure boats used during the day have been brought up on shore and are filled with water.
The bridge’s lights are on, flashing in blue and yellow and red, a Las-Vegas counterpoint. As we look behind us, the cops are milling around on the bridge and so are a couple of European reporters, and some NGO guys besides. I stand on the bridge and talk to the people on it for a while, and then I cross over to the other side.
A man in a green shirt comes up behind us. He’s the German boy’s boss, from an NGO and he’s here to help as well. “I thought I saw someone in the water,” he says to us, as he jogs by. “I’m going down there.”
We mutely follow him off the bridge, down the concrete set of stairs to the water’s edge. The dredging boats are out on the water, staffed by men in orange vests. The men are trolling and coming up with nothing.
The two men dive into the water, the NGO boy and his boss in a green shirt.
The cops are shouting at them to go back. They ignore them. They are diving down again and again, wading through the shallow water, calling out for people and hearing nothing in return. I see the older man going through the rafts of river-vegetation, his shirt plastered slick to his back.
“I thought I saw someone, I thought I saw someone,” the older man says, calling to us from the water. He’s dredging the river with his own hands, because the boats have, for the time being, taken a break or given up. The younger man is diving too, over and over. They come out of the water dripping, and we all stand on the cement in a row with the two large Khmer men who have come down to join us.
The boy is crying, or he is trying not to anyhow and he’s failing, he’s busting up and he’s a man all the same. The two Khmer men are fighting back tears as well. The man in green stands there and drips, and I wonder if I should turn off my recorder, but I don’t.
“I couldn’t save anyone,” the German boy repeats over and over again, and the Khmer man pats him on the shoulder.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, you couldn’t save anyone. You tried your best,” the Khmer man says. He’s looking up at the bridge as he says this.
“I didn’t try my best – I’m still happy – I could try a lot more,” the German boy says. “But I didn’t. I just… dived some seconds into the Mekong. I didn’t see anyone, I didn’t feel anyone. And….I don’t know. It’s just so sad. Just some fun event and people die. Just die. It’s just….terrifying.”
He’s dripping the Tonle Sap out onto the cement.
The boy grabs the older Khmer man by the shoulder. “Thank you, oh god, thank you,” he says. The Khmer man says, “No, thank you,” and clasps his shoulder back, and they remain like this for a moment.
We all go silent and watch the water, the water moving slowly and darkly, water we cannot see into. They would dredge up bodies the next day, when they sent the search teams in. But we can’t find them tonight. Not us.
The older NGO man speaks. He’s directing himself at the German kid. “I just want to tell you…I’m going home. And I don’t think… there’s anything we can do.”
The Khmer men hug the German boy goodbye, and the older NGO man and I shake their hands. We turn and begin to walk up the cement stairs.
The German boy looks out at the water again and back at us, and he puts his head down and he walks too. As we go towards where he has parked his motorcycle, the older NGO guy is telling me about the hospital, where they are now taking the wounded and the dead. That evening, Phnom Penh’s four major hospitals will be quickly and completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in need of care, hospitals that were completely unprepared for a disaster such as this one.
He had saved a girl who had been in the crush, or tried to. “I had her on the back of my bike,” he says. “She was between me and another man. I could feel her shivering, you know?
“Maybe that means she died at the hospital, I don’t know. If I was a doctor I would have assessed her first, would have known the right thing to do. But I’m not. Maybe she’s dead because of that. I don’t know.”
The older man has got a massive dirt-bike, a beast, with which he conveyed the dying girl and her boyfriend and is now conveying us back into the city, away from the island. All three of us will fit. But the German boy isn’t all with us. He walks over a few feet, picks up a sneaker, a stand alone. Regards it for a second, and drops it again.
“Just one shoe,” he says, “Just one shoe.”
It’s a green sneaker. Covered in mud.
“Do you have a cigarette?” he asks me, all of a sudden. I don’t, but the guy in green does. I don’t usually smoke, but tonight, I do.
We smoke in a circle near the kebab-stand with the flashing lights behind us, the boats dredging and dredging in the water, the cops winding down now. They’re standing on the bridge and talking among themselves, beginning the investigation.
“I couldn’t save a single one,” the boy says again, out into the air, and the older man pats his back, a single and terse motion. I stand there and watch them both.
Most of the dead were very young, around my age. They were going out to see a concert with the same inclinations that I might have. Hear some music, do some flirting, drink a little. That they ended an evening in a crush of sweat and blood is horrible, unthinkable. The three of us could imagine our own shoes on that bridge.
Our shoes being swept away the next day.
I wrote this account in late November of last year, when the Phnom Penh Water Festival bridge stampede first occurred. Around 353 people died on that horrible late-November evening, and 395 were gravely injured.
At the time of the incident, no one was sure how the government would respond. Many hoped the tragedy, which was Cambodia’s worst single-day loss of life since the Khmer Rouge era, would convince the government to do some serious soul-searching. At first, things looked promising. Prime Cambodian Minister Hun Sen cried on television – even out of his false eye – and apologized for the tragedy. A government investigation into the matter was swiftly launched.
The investigation allegedly lasted for a single day. The results were explained by Hun Sen at the opening of a new government building, a speech wherein he delivered a mildly-worded mea culpa: “Our biggest mistake is that we wrongly evaluated the situation…. It was a joint mistake which led to the incident … It was unexpected and [we were] careless … and did not prepare any protection measures in advance.”
But, as Hun Sen stressed, the incident was an accident, pure and simple. And no one in Cambodia’s leadership would be punished for it.
Before a wide-spread public outcry could occur, the government quickly handed pay-outs of $10,000 dollars to every bereaved family—and hush money works pretty well in a country as impoverished as Cambodia. Koh Pich Bridge was re-opened a mere 10 days after the incident, and two new bridges are under construction.
As I write this, in March of 2011, the Koh Pich incident has all but faded from the public eye. The Cambodian Human Rights Foundation, a private organization, is the only group that has continued to investigate the accident. As they lack the government’s authority to summon anyone for questioning and the government’s money, this has been a difficult process.
Many Cambodians wonder today if the lessons of Koh Pich have been learned. The government’s evident lack of interest in both accountability and safety, however, does not inspire confidence. Proper crowd control tactics and well prepared health care facilities and emergency health workers could have saved lives last year, and could potentially save lives when 2011’s Water Festival rolls around again. But it will take a government willing to engage in self-criticism to implement well thought out and realistic safety measures for next year’s event. And right now, that is not what Cambodia has.
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