PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A stampede on a bridge in Cambodia’s capital killed at least 339 people and injured nearly as many after thousands panicked on the last day of a water festival, authorities and state media said on Tuesday.
Witnesses said the stampede began after several people were electrocuted late on Monday on a small bridge lined with lights connecting Phnom Penh to nearby Diamond Island. Most drowned, suffocated or were trampled to death trying to flee.
State television said at least 240 of the dead were women, citing reports from two city hospitals.
“People were carrying bodies of relatives, including children and women,” said Vann Thon, 25. “Everyone was looking scared.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen apologized for the disaster in which 329 people were hurt and ordered an investigation, as television footage showed relatives crying over the bodies of the dead piled up on each other. h “This is the biggest tragedy in more than 31 years after the Pol Pot regime,” he said, referring to the murderous Khmer Rouge, whose agrarian revolution from 1975-1979 killed an estimated 1.7 million people in Cambodia under the command of Pol Pot.
Emergency crews carried the inert bodies of the dead away from the scene of the crush and dozens of victims were laid out in long rows for identification.
A paramedic desperately tried to revive one victim before giving up on the lifeless body, while other rescuers helped the injured into a fleet of waiting ambulances.
Hun Sen urged the country to remain calm and ruled out terrorism as a cause for the catastrophe, which took place on the third and final day of the Bon Om Touk water festival, which celebrates the reversing of the current of the Tonle Sap River.
“It needs further investigation,” he said, adding that Thursday would be a national day of mourning.
Diamond Island, a small island owned by a local bank, is equipped with newly built conference and exhibition centers, restaurants and entertainment areas.
It is popular among women shoppers, especially during the water festival when retailers offer discounts on clothing and other goods.
Many of the victims had been eating in outdoor restaurants or had attended a concert and were crossing the bridge to return to the city when the stampede started.
An estimated 5 million of Cambodia’s 14 million people visit the capital during the festival each year.
The rescue effort went on into early Tuesday.
Flashing colored lights along the sides of the small bridge at the heart of the disaster shed a fitful light on the scene — a road strewn with shoes, clothes and other possessions discarded in the panic that gripped the crowds when the crush happened.
“I was stuck in the crowd for a long time and it was so hot and I lost consciousness,” one of the survivors, Huon Khla, 22, told Reuters.
Another survivor, Srey Neang, added: “It is regrettable that there are many dead. This kind of incident has never happened before.
The stampede was the world’s worst since January 2006, when 362 Muslim pilgrims were crushed to death while performing a stoning ritual at the entrance to the Jamarat Bridge near Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Writing by Jason Szep and Martin Petty; Editing by Jon Boyle