BANGKOK, Thailand -- Cambodian officials are investigating why a huge crowd panicked during a joyful Water Festival in Phnom Penh and stampeded across a narrow bridge, killing at least 378 people in Cambodia's worst tragedy since the Khmer Rouge's "killing fields" regime.

Emergency teams, survivors and distraught relatives and friends desperately searched on Tuesday (November 23) among corpses strewn on the bridge and floating in the river.

Many of the dead were later laid on the ground in rows, under white cloth, at hospitals before being packed into coffins for cremation.

Police wearing white rubber gloves gently lifted the hands of dead people and pushed their limp fingertips onto blackened ink pads, and then onto paper, for identification records.

Authorities also posted photographs of victims for public viewing, hoping to identify the dead and injured.

The tragedy occurred Monday (November 22) night, during the final celebration of the three-day Water Festival which marks the end of the tropical rainy season in the impoverished Buddhist-majority country.

Trapped on a small, 250-acre island in the Tonle Bassac River where the festival was staged, hundreds of people tried to flee across the short, narrow bridge, but began shoving, trampling and crushing each other in the melee, while others jumped or fell into the murky water below.

Some of the crushed victims writhed in agony, too weak to free themselves from the corpses and injured people who were piled on top of them on the bridge, but rescuers were able to yank some people out alive.

Phnom Penh's main Calmette Hospital was quickly overrun by too many injured and dying people and not enough beds, staff or medicine to treat them.

"The scale of this tragedy has overwhelmed the government hospitals," said Esther Halim, country director of World Vision, a U.S. Christian humanitarian organization.

"There were people lying in the corridors waiting for treatment, and many relatives arriving at the hospital looking for their loved ones and in a most distraught state," she said.

"Some people were crushed to death under four or five layers of people during the stampede."

A government spokesman, Phay Siphan, said the total casualty count was more than 1,000, with 378 people killed and 755 injured, Associated Press reported.

Authorities said there were no foreigners among the dead or injured.

About two million people attend the Water Festival each year, creating a colorful, lively, casual atmosphere of fun and relaxation, with many attendees watching boat races, which are the festival's highlight.

Enthusiasts enjoy a party atmosphere when rural villagers mingle with Phnom Penh's urban residents, though some complain of drunkenness and the difficulty of moving through crowded streets on the mainland along the river.

The festival is held each year in Cambodia's capital, but for the first time many of the events, including a concert, were staged on Diamond Island, also known as Koh Pich, a sliver of land visible from downtown Phnom Penh's embankments.

The island is connected to the city by two bridges, but officials reportedly closed the larger bridge for unknown reasons earlier on Monday, forcing thousands of people to use the narrower bridge.

Strewn with shoes, sandals, jackets and other debris amid mud, food and trash left after the stampede -- the newly-built decorative, fanciful bridge was not designed for large crowds.

It was created for daily commuters to and from the island, where new buildings are being constructed as part of Phnom Penh's real estate expansion, opposite the Foreign Ministry, National Assembly and other key buildings on the mainland.

Investigators on Tuesday were trying to determine why people suddenly panicked.

Some witnesses said trouble began when a handful of people fainted because of the heat and physical pressure of the large crowd, causing others to nervously try to escape.

Cambodia has struggled to modernize during the past decade, with foreign investment, tourism, light industry and other sectors benefiting from the government's authoritarian, corrupt, but relatively stable administration.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Southeast Asian nation was devastated by the U.S.-Vietnam War which spilled into Cambodia when then-President Richard Nixon "secretly" unleashed intense aerial bombardment of the country.

That strategy failed to stop Communist North Vietnam using Cambodian territory as a sanctuary and transportation link, along its Ho Chi Minh Trail, to move troops against U.S.-backed South Vietnam, which lost the war in 1975.

That same year, Communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Cambodia seized Phnom Penh, forced its entire population into the jungle, and began the infamous "killing fields" regime under the leadership of Pol Pot.

An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished during Pol Pot's reign until Vietnam invaded Cambodia in January 1979.

"This is the biggest tragedy we have experienced in the last 31 years, since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime," said Prime Minister Hun Sen who declared Thursday as a national day of mourning.

The government offered to pay dead victims' families $1,250 and give $250 to each injured person as compensation.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2010 Richard S Ehrlich)