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Cambodia Mourns in Aftermath of Bridge Stampede

Earlier today, in Cambodia, a group of monks and officials pray for victims near the site where people stampeded during Monday's water festival in Phnom Penh.
Earlier today, in Cambodia, a group of monks and officials pray for victims near the site where people stampeded during Monday's water festival in Phnom Penh.

The day after the largest tragedy in recent Cambodian history, hospitals were overwhelmed with family members as they searched for lost loved ones.

Hospitals were lined with the bodies of the dead, with disaster authorities claiming they had so far only identified 60 percent of the victims.

Bodies were put in coffins and shipped to their home provinces for burial, as the government declared Thursday a national day of mourning and established an investigative committee.

Officials say at least 378 people were killed during a crowd stampede on a bridge near Diamond Island, on the riverfront, following annual Water Festival festivities.

Revelry turned to tragedy as a crowd in the thousands, trapped on the bridge, panicked, crushing some underfoot as others jumped into the river to escape. More than 700 people were wounded in the event, which had emergency crews scrabbling through the early morning hours Tuesday.

Hospitals were filled with the bodies of the dead, lined up along the floor, where loved ones were forced to search for the lost.

Horn Sam An, 41, in L'vea Em district, Kandal province, found her sister dead after she spent from midnight to 8 am searching three hospitals before finding her at a fourth, Calmette.

Soa Sok, 37, from Kampong Cham province, said he walked with three friends from hospital to hospital to find his missing brother. He had still not found him as of Tuesday afternoon.

In a national address, Prime Minister Hun Sen called the tragedy the worst since the Khmer Rouge, and he appointed one investigative committee to learn the reason for the disaster and a second committee to help the families of victims.

Nhim Vanda, deputy chief of the National Disaster Committee, said health officials were performing examinations of the bodies and identifying them for families.

“And then we put the bodies in white cloth and plastic in a coffin and are transporting the bodies to their respective homes for traditional ceremonies,” he said. “The government has paid everything for all the bodies of families for transport and ceremony.”

Bodies were sent back home via ambulances, military trucks and other vehicles.

Prum Sokha, secretary of state for the Interior Ministry and the head of the investigative committee, called for the survivors and other witnesses to help by providing information to the authorities.

Family members who came to Calmette Tuesday morning described bruised and broken bodies.

“My sister's body was blackened on the hands, chest, stomach and feet, like people had stomped on her,” said Sok Navy, 41, from Kandal province.

But there were those too who escaped the stampede with their lives. Pheoung Srey Leak, a 22-year-old survivor, said she was trapped on the crowded bridge for four hours.

“It was very stuff, and no air,” she said. “I couldn't walk out of the crowd. I had a feeling I was probably not alive, and I was hopeless.... I was determined not to faint. If I had fainted and fallen down, I would have been stomped to death by other people.”

But she did faint, she said, and she couldn't breathe. “When I woke up, I was in the emergency room of Calmette hospital,” she said.

For those who died, some 4,000 Buddhist monks held a ceremony of prayer Tuesday afternoon.

The government has declared Thursday a national day of mourning, and groups from around the country have pledged their support to the families of victims.

Former king Norodom Sihanouk and his son, the king, Norodom Sihamoni, expressed condolences for lost loved ones and promised $200 to the families of the deceased and $100 to the families of the injured.

Students from 10 separate universities have established the 2211 foundation, named for the date of the incident, to gather funds for the families.

“And to march on Nov. 25 to pay respect to the souls of the deceased,” said Toch Norin, a student representative.

Political parties and development agencies issued their own condolences, along with others.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement on behalf of President Barrack Obama, saying: “I have seen their strength and resilience first hand, including during my recent visit, and I am confident that they will pull together and persevere through this difficult time.”

But questions over how the tragedy happened, and the response, remain.

The Asian Human Rights Commission issued a statement of condolence that also questioned security measures in the capital during the massive festival, saying: “It is clear that Phnom Penh was unprepared for any large-scale disaster.”