Death toll from Cambodia casino fire reaches 25 as rescuers scour site

A relative of a victim of the Grand Diamond City hotel-casino fire in Poipet, Cambodia, mourns at a temple on the Thai side of the border in Aranyaprathet on December 30, 2022. Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

Poipet, Cambodia -- Rescuers scoured the charred ruins of a Cambodian hotel and casino complex Friday as the death toll from a fire that forced people to jump from windows rose to 25.

Hundreds of people are believed to have been inside the Grand Diamond City venue, located in the town of Poipet within sight of the Thai border, when the blaze broke out late Wednesday night.

"The death toll now is around 25," said Sek Sokhom, director of the information department for the province of Banteay Meanchey, adding that some of the bodies recovered were found in stairways.

Grieving families told AFP they were struggling to comprehend the scale of the incident, with one mother saying she was unable to eat because she was so "overwhelmed" by the loss of her 23-year-old son.

Photos and video from the scene showed people huddling on windowsills to escape the flames, with one rescuer telling AFP he saw people desperately jumping from the roof as the blaze inched closer.

A Cambodian police officer told AFP they believed "there are many more bodies still trapped inside" as rescuers began entering the gutted complex.

Hundreds of Cambodian soldiers and police officers, along with volunteers from Thailand, are taking part in the search.

Smoke was still occasionally rising from the complex on Friday as rescuers prepared to enter the buildings at around 7 am, with fire trucks on standby at the scene.

Jakkapong Ruengdech, a team leader with Thai rescue group the Poh Teck Tung Foundation, told AFP they needed to establish if there was still intense smoke or fire inside.

Another rescuer from the group, who asked not to be named, described the building as "unstable" and said the search would have to proceed with caution.

Many of the injured have been taken to Thailand for treatment, with local officials on the Thai side saying more than 50 had been hospitalised, with 13 in critical condition.

- 'Overwhelmed' -

As the death toll rose, grieving families struggled to comprehend their loss -- such as Keerati Keawwat, whose 23-year-old son was in the building.

"He got stuck inside and could not get out," the 55-year-old told AFP from a makeshift information centre.

"I can't eat, and only slept for one hour," she said. "I'm too overwhelmed."

' Neung', a 42-year-old casino worker who gave only his nickname, said he was sleeping in the complex and managed to make it out -- but his father was not so lucky.

He said his dad, who was gambling in the casino Wednesday night, managed to help two women reach safety.

"But in helping them, he used a lot of energy and was choked by the smoke," he said, describing how his dad was then trapped in a room with others but was able to call until roughly 3 am.

"I then lost connection with my dad, and lost hope," he said.

"Now, I only want to have his body."

The complex is one of many in Poipet, a border town popular with Thais who face strict restrictions on gambling within their country.

Thailand's foreign ministry said it was working closely with Cambodian authorities to find and identify Thais involved in the incident and was sending "additional equipment, consular officers and a police attache" to Poipet.

While gambling by Cambodians is also illegal under the country's laws, numerous casino-filled hotspots have flourished along the borders with Thailand and Vietnam.

- 'A tragedy' -

A Grand Diamond City worker, who asked not to be named as it might affect her job, told AFP she was working on the third floor of the 17-floor hotel wing when the blaze broke out.

"At first, it was not a huge fire," she said. But she and a co-worker were soon forced to flee outside when the flames began rampaging towards them.

"It got huge rapidly," she said, still in a state of shock over the death and destruction.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday expressed condolences to the families of the victims, calling it a "tragedy" and promising that fire engines would be placed near all tall buildings.

There is as yet no indication what caused the blaze, the latest in a series of fires that have struck popular entertainment establishments in the region where concerns have long been raised over lax safety standards.

© Agence France-Presse

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