More victims recovered from Cambodia casino hotel fire

POIPET, Cambodia (AP) — The confirmed death toll from a massive fire at a casino hotel complex in western Cambodia rose to 25 on Friday as the search resumed for victims, officials said.

The blaze at the Grand Diamond City casino and hotel in the town of Poipet on the Thai border started around midnight Wednesday and was extinguished more than 12 hours later on Thursday afternoon.

By Friday morning, 25 bodies had been recovered from the site, according to Sek Sokhom, head of Banteay Meanchey province’s information department. He said six bodies were found Friday morning, some in their rooms and others on stairways.

More than 60 people were injured, he said, and the death toll was expected to rise once rescuers are able to access victims who are believed to be under debris or in locked rooms.

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.

An accurate toll of the casualties has been hard to obtain due to the chaotic rescue efforts and since many of those saved were rushed across the border for treatment in neighboring Thailand, which has better medical facilities.

Thai and Cambodian rescue teams have been working side-by-side in searching the 17-story complex, but paused their efforts overnight at the dangerously damaged site.

Many of those inside, both customers and staff, were from neighboring Thailand, which sent firetrucks and emergency workers to help.

Thailand’s Sa Kaeo Provincial Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Office has counted 11 dead — all Thai — and 109 injured, including 57 in hospitals.

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 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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