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Bangkok fire kills at least 59 New Year clubbers

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A blaze at a top Bangkok nightclub killed 59 people and injured more than 100 others as people celebrating the New Year stampeded out of the burning building, police said on Thursday.

The cause of the fire was under investigation with witnesses saying it was caused by fireworks and media reporting it was due to an electrical fault. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva visited the injured at one hospital and at the charred building, saying firecrackers should not have been brought inside the club.

Among the dead was a Singaporean man, identified as Teo Sze Siong. Forensic experts were unable to identify at least 30 bodies as they had no identification documents with them, doctors said, adding it would take them at least a week to do so.

Foreigners treated in hospitals included those from Japan, Australia, the Netherlands and France, police said.

Although details were sketchy, witnesses said clubbers were given sparklers shortly before midnight and as soon as clocks heralded the start of 2009, fireworks started going off inside the dance area, sparking a conflagration.

“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,” partygoer Oh Benjamas told Reuters on the street outside the smouldering wreckage of the Santika club.

“People started running for the doors and breaking the windows,” she said.

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Dozens of bodies wrapped in white cotton sheets lay on the pavement outside as fire crews moved in to douse the embers of the club on Ekkamai, a street popular with foreign revellers and high-society Thais.

Many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition and the blaze had completely gutted the building. Rescue teams used pick-up trucks to ferry bodies from the scene.

Witness Tos Maddy, who estimated 400 people were packed inside the building, said he heard what he thought was an electrical explosion around 1230 a.m. (1730 GMT), followed by a stampede for the exits.

“Everything went boom and people started running. The fire went very quickly,” he told Reuters.

Others described flames licking the ceiling before it caved in.

“I was in the bathroom and when I walked out, I saw flames in the roof and it fell to the floor,” 28-year-old Montika Boontang told Reuters in nearby Bangkok Hospital, where the majority of the injured were being treated.

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Thanat Wongsanga, a neighbourhood police official, said the cause of the blaze had not yet been determined. Local media said an electrical fault was probably to blame.

The Health Ministry’s emergency centre said 59 people had been killed and 184 people had been injured. Most of the victims died of suffocation or severe burns, it said.

Among the most critical was a 25-year-old Japanese man who suffered 40 percent burns on his body and was in an intensive care unit.

Bangkok’s nightspots, some of which can accommodate several thousand people, have often been the subject of safety concerns, although they have been incident-free for the last five years.

The Thai capital was hit two years ago on New Year’s Eve by a series of small explosions in which several people were killed and dozens injured.

The blasts were blamed variously on fallout from the 2006 coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Muslim militants who have waged a separatist rebellion in Thailand’s southernmost provinces since 2003.

Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Bill Tarrant