Dozens die in New Year's nightclub fire in Bangkok
Friday, January 2, 2009
BANGKOK, Thailand -- It was billed as a New Year's Eve blowout and a last-night celebration of the wildly popular, classy nightclub before it moved to a new location. "Goodbye Santika," the promotion poster read.
Before the revelry was over, at least 61 people were dead and more than 200 injured when they tried to flee what swiftly became a charred, gutted ruin in a glitzy Bangkok entertainment area.
Several witnesses said a fireworks display during the New Year's countdown ignited the blaze. But one foreigner said he saw no pyrotechnics at the club and a video shot by a guest showed many inside the club waving sparklers shortly before the fire erupted.
Among the casualties were a Singaporean who died and at least 35 foreigners who were injured, including citizens of Australia, Belgium, Britain, France, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the United States, according to officials and reporters.
A full accounting was not expected for about a week since nearly 30 of the corpses were charred beyond recognition.
A senior Bangkok official, Pongsak Kasemsan, ordered a preliminary investigation report to be completed within three days and vowed to crack down on unsafe entertainment venues, some of which have been described as death traps by local residents.
"Everybody was pushing against each other trying to get out to the front door as quickly as possible," said Sompong Tritaweelap, who lives in an apartment behind the nightclub. "I saw people, particularly young girls, being pushed away and crushed underneath as others were stomping on them trying to get out."
Victims died from burns, smoke inhalation and injuries during the stampede. Their bodies, placed in white bags, were laid out in rows in the parking lot in front of the club.
Sompong said the fire spread through the entire building within 10 minutes.
"People were screaming for help from every window. It was a terrible sight. Their hair and clothes were on fire but there was nothing they could do as the fire engulfed them," he said.
The Phranakorn Center, an official agency dealing with accidents in Bangkok, said at least 61 people died and that 35 foreigners were among the injured. The Narenthorn Emergency Center, which was coordinating relief efforts, said more than 200 had been injured.
The Santika Club, popular with young, affluent Thais as well as tourists and expatriates, was celebrating not only the New Year but also the last night at its location in the Ekamai entertainment district. The owner was planning to move to a new location since the lease on the property could not be extended.
The website of The Nation newspaper quoted one partygoer, Somchai Frendi, as saying the blaze was caused when the countdown fireworks ignited the second floor ceiling, which was covered with soundproofing material.
Sompong quoted a maid at the club as giving a similar account.
But Steven Hall, 35, from Cardiff Wales in Britain, said he saw no fireworks on the stage.
"As far as I could see, the fire looked like it started at the ceiling level," Hall said in a hospital interview. "The first thing I remember was seeing people on the stage and seeing flames coming out from along the ceiling level above the stage and seeing embers come down and looking at the faces of people on the stage looking horrified."
"There was a band and a DJ -- I could not see any pyrotechnics," he said.
Police Lt. Gen. Jongrak Jutanont said an initial investigation found the club's safety system was "substandard" but did not elaborate.
The club was packed with about 1,000 celebrants, police officers at the scene said.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva visited the still-smoldering club just after dawn. Later, during a visit at one of the hospitals, he said, "The question is why they let someone take fireworks inside the pub and light them up."