26 bodies found as search ends at Cambodian hotel fire site

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Cambodian and Thai rescue experts walk through a ruined building for a searching operation at the scene of a massive fire at a Cambodian hotel casino in Poipet, west of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, Dec. 30, 2022. The fire at the Grand Diamond City casino and hotel Thursday injured over 60 people and killed more than a dozen, a number that officials warned would rise after the search for bodies resumes Friday. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

POIPET, Cambodia (AP) — The search for bodies in the wreckage of a burned-out casino hotel complex in western Cambodia has concluded with 26 people confirmed dead, a senior official said late Friday.

Banteay Meanchey province Governor Um Reatrey told The Associated Press by phone that after 39 hours of rescue and search operations, there were also 57 injured survivors from the Wednesday night fire at the Grand Diamond City casino and hotel in the town of Poipet.

Seventeen of the dead were from Thailand, one each from Nepal, Malaysia and China, and six bodies were yet to be identified, he said.

The Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Office of Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province, just across the border from Poipet, said there had been 27 deaths — 26 in Cambodia and one in a Thai hospital. It said of the 112 people injured, 27 remained in hospitals and 85 had returned to their homes.

Thailand, which provided firefighting and rescue assistance, was where many of the injured were taken for treatment. Thais made up a large proportion of the guests and employees at the casino complex.

Searchers failed to find new bodies Friday afternoon at the disaster site, although more dead had been expected to be found.

The blaze at the Grand Diamond City complex started late Wednesday night and was extinguished more than 12 hours later on Thursday afternoon.

The Grand Diamond City casino complex has 500 employees, and it had 1,000 customers Wednesday, according to a report from Soth Kimkolmony, a spokesperson for Cambodia’s National Committee for Disaster Management. It was unclear how many were present when the fire broke out, and how many managed to flee to safety.

Many of the injured had been rushed across the border for treatment in neighboring Thailand. That, along with the chaotic rescue efforts, made it difficult to get an accurate toll of the casualties.

Thai and Cambodian rescue teams worked side by side in searching the two-building complex. Governor Um Reatrey said 1,009 Cambodian personnel and 221 from Thailand aided in the search efforts.

Thailand’s Ruamkatanyu Foundation, a social welfare organization that sends volunteers to disaster scenes, said Friday the search operation in the main 17-story building of the casino complex was completed, and it was withdrawing its teams. It said its searchers could not enter the more badly damaged 6-story part of the complex because it was too unsafe.

An initial investigation found that the fire may have been caused by New Year’s holiday decorations that drew too much electricity, causing wires to overheat and burn, local authorities said.

Khmer Times, a Cambodian English-language news website, quoted Poipet city Governor Keat Hul describing the chaos when the fire broke out.

“Hotel and casino workers used fire extinguishers to stop the fire but to no avail. People were panicking and rushing about everywhere but mainly for the nearest exit,” he said. “I was told that there was a stampede out at the main entrance when black smoke was billowing through the building.”

He was quoted as saying he believed many of the deaths came from smoke inhalation and some people died when they leapt from high stories to escape the flames.

Poipet in western Cambodia is a site of busy cross-border trade and tourism opposite the city 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 just a short walk from the border checkpoint with Thailand and popular with customers who make the four-hour drive from the Thai capital, Bangkok.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen made his first public comments on the tragedy in remarks to villagers Friday morning at a road repair ceremony in the southern province of Kampot.

He expressed his condolences and said the incident showed that all tall buildings in the country must have sufficient equipment to fight fires. He also gave thanks to all the people who worked in the rescue effort, including those from Thailand.

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Associated Press writer Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul in Bangkok contributed to this report. Sopheng Cheang reported from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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