The death toll from Thursday’s fire that engulfed a hotel and casino complex in Cambodia rose to 26 as rescuers completed search operations on Friday.
Hundreds of people are believed to have been inside the Grand Diamond City Stadium, located in the northwestern city of Poipet, within sight of the Thai border, when a fire broke out late Wednesday night.
“The death toll is 26, including 21 Thai nationals,” said Sek Sohom, director of the provincial information department of Banteay Meanchey. According to him, some of the discovered bodies were found on the stairs.
Sek Sohom said the search was over because “rescuers got to all the places where we thought there might be casualties.”
Grieving families told AFP they struggled to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster. One mother said she couldn’t eat because she was so overwhelmed by the loss of her son.
Photos and videos from the scene show people huddling on window sills to escape the blaze, and one of the rescuers told AFP that he saw people frantically jumping off the roof as the blaze approached.
Hundreds of Cambodian soldiers and police, along with volunteers from Thailand, worked all day while smoke was still rising from the building before the search was abandoned as night fell.
Searches have been slowed down by concerns that the building is unsafe, with a volunteer from the Thai rescue group Poh Teck Tung Foundation calling it unstable.
Many of the wounded were taken to Thailand for treatment. Thai officials said more than 50 people were hospitalized, 13 of them in critical condition.
Grieving mother Kirati Keavwat said her 23-year-old son was in the building when the fire broke out.
“He was stuck inside and couldn’t get out,” said a 55-year-old man from the makeshift information center.
“I can’t eat and only slept for an hour,” she said. “I’m too stunned.”
“Nyn”, a 42-year-old casino worker who only gave his nickname, said he slept in the complex but managed to get out, although his father was not so lucky.
He said that his father, who played in the casino, managed to save two women.
“But helping them, he spent a lot of energy and suffocated from the smoke,” he said.
His father was then locked in a room with other people, but was still able to call until about 3 am.
“Then I lost touch with my father and lost hope,” he said. “Now I only want his body.”
The complex is one of many in Poipet, a border town popular with Thais who face strict gambling restrictions in their country.
Tuk-tuk driver Titinun Tonging told AFP that the horrendous fire was indicative of poor safety standards in Poipet.
“I worry about everything that happens there. Everything is getting out of hand,” said a 48-year-old man who lives on the Thai side.
The Thai Foreign Ministry said it was working closely with Cambodian authorities to find and identify the Thais involved in the incident and was sending more equipment, consular officers and a police attaché to Poipet.
Gambling by Cambodians is also illegal, but numerous hotspots filled with casinos thrive along the borders with Thailand and Vietnam.
A Grand Diamond City employee who asked not to be named because it could affect her job told AFP she was working on the third floor of the hotel’s 17-story wing when the fire started.
“At first there was no big fire,” she said, but soon she and her colleague were forced to run outside.
“He quickly became huge,” she said, still shaken by the death and destruction.
Other casino employees said they had no choice but to keep working despite their misgivings.
“I will continue my work because it is not easy to find another job,” said a 30-year-old man who worked at a nearby gambling establishment.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday expressed his condolences to the families of the victims, calling the incident a “tragedy” and promising that fire engines would be stationed near all high-rise buildings.
So far, there is no indication of what caused the blaze, the latest in a series of fires that have hit popular entertainment venues in a region where concerns have long been raised about lax safety standards.