The midnight blaze that engulfed three adjacent casino buildings in Poipet town of Banteay Meanchey province through the morning of December 29 claimed at least 19 lives and injured 73 others, according to authorities.
Bun Pheng, deputy provincial police chief in charge of fire prevention and rescue, told The Post that the Grand Diamond City Hotel and Casino – located adjacent to the international border checkpoint with Thailand in O’Chrov commune – caught fire at around 10:45pm on December 28.
Citing witnesses at the scene, he said the flames first ripped through the southern side of the casino before spreading to its north tower and an adjacent building, resulting in the almost total destruction of the three buildings.
“As of 3pm, December 29, police had found 19 bodies and 73 people who were injured, 23 of them seriously. The majority of the victims were Thai, and they’ve been sent to a Thai hospital in [Sa Kaeo province’s] Aranyaprathet district,” he said.
He continued that the police were still working to determine the cause of the blaze as they were focused on search and rescue operations and cadaver recovery.
Nhem Phoeng, chief of administration at the Poipet Town Hall, told The Post that an estimated 400 people, mostly staff and Thai guests of the casinos, were left stranded on the roof of the buildings.
“Our firefighters, including auxiliary forces from the Thai side, worked tirelessly to extinguish the flames and rescue those who were trapped in and on the buildings. Helicopters were employed to rescue those stranded on the roof,” he said.
He added that some of the victims had elected to jump from the roof of the buildings to escape the flames. Most of them had died from their falls, or sustained serious injuries.
The bodies of the dead were taken to Trach Pagoda, about 2km from the scene, for examination. The dead Thais were returned to their homeland.
Poipet police chief Prum Piseth told The Post that about 300 Cambodian police forces and 11 fire engines were deployed to fight the blaze, along with many firefighters and appliances from the Thai side of the border. But their efforts were hampered by the flammable nature of the 18-storey structure.
“It took a sustained effort for many hours by our brave officers and their Thai counterparts to bring this horrendous inferno under control. We are all filled with regret that we could not save every one of the victims of this tragedy,” he said.
“This was the largest fire the province – or indeed the Kingdom, as far as I know – has ever experienced, with nearly one hundred casualties at this stage,” he continued.
He said that several national and provincial-level leaders had raced to the scene to help coordinate rescue efforts, including Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM) first vice-president Kun Kim and provincial governor Um Reatrey.