27 Thais perish in Poipet casino inferno

10 bodies returned so far, as Aranyaprathet border closure prompts traffic jam at another checkpoint

Relatives of a victim of the Grand Diamond City hotel-casino fire in Poipet mourn at a temple in Aranyaprathet district of Sa Kaeo province on Friday. (AFP photo)

The bodies of 10 of the 27 Thais who died in the casino inferno in Poipet in Cambodia have been returned to the border town of Aranyaprathet as authorities try to tackle congestion at another checkpoint to keep trade flowing between the two countries.

Chanathip Khokmanee, an assistant to the governor of Sa Kaeo province, said 27 Thai nationals were known to have died in the Grand Diamond City Hotel and Casino inferno as of 3pm on Friday, Jor Sor 100 and INN News reported.

He said 26 of them died in Poipet and one after being transported back to Aranyaprathet.

Hospitals in the province had treated at least 112 people with injuries including burns, broken bones and respiratory problems, he added.

Thawatthachai Boonsaeng, an Aranyaprathet district official at the coordination centre set up to help Thais affected by the tragedy, said 10 bodies had been transported to Aranyaprathet, according to Jor Sor 100 traffic radio.

Mr Chanathip, speaking from the coordination centre, said another four bodies had been identified and would soon be transported from Poipet, while 12 others were waiting to be autopsied and identified.

Cambodian authorities permitted Thailand to start repatriating bodies after they had been identified on Thursday, Channel 7 TV reported. It said they were moved from Trat temple in Poipet town in Banteay Meanchey province to Wat Pratuchai Arankhet and the Sawant Thiang Thammasathan Foundation, both in Aranyaprathet, where their families could make arrangements for religious ceremonies.

Thai and Cambodian authorities expect more bodies to be found at the casino-hotel complex that has been gutted by the blaze that broke out late Wednesday night. About 20 more bodies are believed to be still trapped in the ruins.

The Thai embassy in Phnom Penh said on Friday that it was issuing documents for 50 Thai nationals affected by the fire to return to Thailand. (Story continues below)

Nunthida Kongreung, whose parents perished in the Grand Diamond City fire, prays with other family members in Aranyaprathet on Friday. (Photo: Reuters)

Grieving families

As the death toll rose, grieving families struggled to comprehend their loss — among them 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 the information centre.

“I can’t eat, and only slept for one hour,” she said. “I’m too overwhelmed.”

Nunthida Kongreung said that when she heard about the fire, she started calling her parents who were on holiday at the hotel, but nobody answered.

When finally someone called back, it was a rescue worker who had found their bodies, slumped against each other in their hotel room on the 17th floor, where they died from smoke inhalation.

“The rescuers said my parents were not burned, but they choked from inhaling smoke. So, if help had come earlier they might have survived,” Ms Nunthida, 36, said at a hospital in Aranyaprathet.

One survivor told Channel 7 he saw a light fixture throw off sparks that then caused flames to reach the ceiling.

“Then it started getting chaotic. After the fire hit the ceiling, I don’t think it was OK. It had gone on for half an hour and the fire trucks hadn’t arrived,” said Piyapol Sukkaew, a patron who was on the casino floor at the time.

“After just five minutes, there was smoke everywhere.”

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

He said his father, who was gambling in the casino on 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 3am.

“I then lost connection with my dad, and lost hope,” he said. “Now, I only want to have his body.”

Border gridlock

Cambodia continued to close the Poipet checkpoint to ensure rescuers and authorities could search unimpeded for more victims, amid fears that the impact of heavy vehicle movement would pose more risks to the structure of the complex that was severely damaged by the blaze.

The casino, owned by fugitive Thai politician Vatana Asavahame, is located just 200 metres from the border.

Cambodia instructed all trucks to use the Stung Bot checkpoint, opposite Ban Nong Ian in Aranyaprathet, as the only border crossing. Trucks travelling between the two countries have now started to back up at the Stung Bot-Nong Ian checkpoint, located south of the Klong Luk-Poipet border pass, which is the main gateway for land transport between Thailand and Cambodia.

Sa Kaeo governor Prinya Photisat held talks with Cambodian immigration authorities about attempts to speed up the immigration process, according to the public relations office in Sa Kaeo.

The checkpoint between Aranyaprathet and Poipet would remain closed for public transport until further notice, he added.