POIPET, Cambodia (AP) — The confirmed death toll from a massive fire at a hotel-casino complex in western Cambodia rose to 25 on Friday as the search for victims resumed, officials said.
The fire at the Grand Diamond City casino and hotel in the Thai border town of Poipet began around midnight Wednesday and was extinguished more than 12 hours later Thursday afternoon.
By Friday morning, 25 bodies had been found at the site, according to Sek Sokhom, head of the Banteay Meanchey provincial information service. He said six bodies were found on Friday morning, some in their bedrooms and some on the stairs.
More than 60 people were injured, he said, and the death toll is expected to rise once rescuers can gain access to victims believed to be under debris or in locked rooms.
The Grand Diamond City casino complex has 500 employees and 1,000 customers on Wednesday, according to a report by Soth Kimkolmony, spokesman for the Cambodian National Committee for Disaster Management. It is unclear how many were present when the fire broke out and how many managed to flee to safety.
It has been difficult to get an accurate death toll due to chaotic rescue efforts and the fact that many of those rescued have crossed the border for treatment in neighboring Thailand, which has better medical facilities. .
Thai and Cambodian rescue teams worked side by side to search the 17-story complex, but halted their efforts overnight at the dangerously damaged site.
Many of those inside, both customers and staff, were from neighboring Thailand, which sent fire engines and rescue workers to help.
Thailand’s Sa Kaeo Provincial Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Office has counted 11 dead – all Thai – and 109 injured, including 57 hospitalized.
An initial investigation found the blaze may have been caused by New Year’s holiday decorations that were drawing too much electricity, causing wires to overheat and burn, local authorities said.
Khmer Times, a Cambodian English-language news site, quoted Poipet City Governor Keat Hul as describing the chaos when the fire broke out.
“Hotel and casino employees used fire extinguishers to put out the fire, but to no avail. People were panicking and rushing everywhere, but mostly towards the nearest exit,” he said. “I was told there was a stampede at the main entrance as black smoke billowed from the building.”
He was quoted as saying he believed many deaths were due to smoke inhalation and that some people died jumping from high floors to escape the flames.
Poipet in western Cambodia is a hub of cross-border trade and tourism opposite the town of Aranyaprathet in more affluent Thailand.
Casinos are illegal in Thailand. Many Thais visit neighboring countries such as Cambodia – a popular tourist destination with convenient international connections – to gamble. Poipet has more than a dozen casinos.
The Grand Diamond City casino is a short walk from the border checkpoint with Thailand and popular with patrons making the four-hour drive from Thailand’s capital, Bangkok.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen made his first public comments on the tragedy in remarks to villagers on Friday morning at a road repair ceremony in the southern province of Kampot.
He expressed his condolences and said the incident showed that all high-rise buildings in the country should have sufficient equipment to fight fires. He also thanked everyone who worked in the rescue effort, including those from Thailand.
Associated Press Bangkok editor Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul contributed to this report. Sopheng Cheang reported from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.