PHNOM PENH, Nov 23, 2010 (AFP) - Frantic relatives scoured makeshift morgues in the Cambodian capital on Tuesday after nearly 380 revellers perished in a huge stampede on an overcrowded bridge, turning a water festival into tragedy.
Survivors recounted scenes of panic and fear on the narrow bridge as people were trampled underfoot by the surging crowds on Monday, with some reportedly falling or jumping into the river below or grabbing on to electricity cables.
|Cambodian Buddhist monks gather to pray for victims of the stampede in front of the bridge in Phnom Penh on November 23, 2010. AFP|
Prime Minister Hun Sen described the disaster as Cambodia's worst tragedy since the Khmer Rouge's 1975-1979 reign of terror, which left up to a quarter of the population dead. He declared a national day of mourning on Thursday.
The United States offered Cambodia "deep condolences for the tragic loss of life".
At least 378 people were killed in the crush and some 750 were injured, government spokesman Phay Siphan told AFP.
"The number is still going up," he said.
Exuberant festival-goers had been crossing the bridge to reach an island hosting concerts, food stalls and ice sculptures before the crowd turned to a desperate crush of human bodies.
It was not immediately clear what had triggered the disaster, but another government spokesman said a rumour had spread among revellers celebrating one of Cambodia's biggest festivals that the bridge was unstable.
"So panic started. It was too crowded and they had nowhere to run," Khieu Kanharith said.
Many of the deaths were caused by suffocation and internal injuries, he said, adding that about two-thirds of the dead were women.
At the scene of the tragedy, the bridge to Diamond Island was littered with sunglasses and flip-flops and still decked with lights from the huge annual water festival that drew millions into the streets on Monday night.
"There were so many people and they tried to push me and some people stepped on me. I saw a few jump off the bridge," Meourn Piseth told AFP.
"I felt like I was going to die, I couldn't breathe," said the 15-year-old as he received treatment for his badly bruised legs at Preah Ketomealea hospital.
At the site of the tragedy around 400 Buddhist monks, nuns and government officials laid flowers and lit incense sticks while praying for the souls of the dead.
"They didn't expect to die here... We feel so miserable," Cambodia's chief monk Non Ngeth told AFP.
At the city's Calmette Hospital a man suffering serious back injuries, who did not want to give his name, recalled the anguish of being unable to help others around him as the surging crowd became a suffocating crush.
"I felt selfish when it happened, but I could not help myself. There was a child trapped under me and I wanted to pull him up but I couldn't," he said.
Early Tuesday several hundred worried relatives gathered outside the hospital clutching pictures of family members, trying to identify missing loved ones.
The dead, laid out in rows under a white tent erected in the hospital car park, were photographed and numbered by policemen, their uncovered faces showing that many had sustained bloody bruises during the stampede.
One woman said she recognised her 16-year-old niece in the makeshift morgue.
"I heard she was killed last night, so I came here and I saw her body," Som Khov, 51, told AFP.
After Hun Sen promised that the bodies of out-of-town visitors would be sent home, 13 military trucks began taking away corpses and by evening most of the dead had been removed from the hospital's makeshift morgue.
The stampede marked a tragic end to the three days of boat races, concerts and fireworks. The annual festival marks the reversal of the flow between the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers.
The event -- which saw hundreds of brightly coloured boats take part in races on the Tonle Sap -- is popular with tourists but there was no confirmation that any foreigners were among the victims.
The last time the festival was marred by tragedy was in 2007 when five Singaporeans were killed after their dragon boat, carrying 22 men, capsized at the end of their race.