At least 19 people, many of them Thais, were killed and up to 30 were missing after a fire tore through a casino-hotel complex in a Cambodian town on the Thai border, officials said on Thursday.
About 400 employees and patrons were in the Grand Diamond City casino and hotel in the town of Poipet when the fire broke out around midnight, leaving the building charred and gutted by Thursday afternoon.
Cambodian police said hundreds of military, police and volunteer rescue personnel had joined the rescue effort, which was suspended at nightfall given the risk the building might collapse.
Sek Sokhom, head of the Banteay Meanchey provincial information department, said the number of deaths could exceed 20, with 60 people injured. The Cambodian government has set up a committee to investigate the cause of the fire, which remained unclear, he said.
A key part of Cambodia’s tourism industry, casinos in the capital of Phnom Penh and on the borders with Vietnam and Thailand are a draw for visitors from Asian nations that ban gambling.
Those in Poipet are hugely popular with short-term Thai visitors as gambling is illegal across the border and unlicensed casinos operate underground there. Many of the victims were Thai nationals, rescue workers said.
“(The deceased) that we found are Thais, as their IDs show. The bodies now have to be identified,” said 53-year-old rescue worker Somboon Kwanoum.
Video footage showed the fire under control by Thursday afternoon and a crew in a fire escape stairwell of the building putting on respirator masks and fire-resistant hoods before entering a smoke-filled corridor.
Punnawat Promsri, 40, said her Thai relative died trying to help two women escape the fire.
“Max stayed behind to help one woman and a pregnant woman escape,” she told Reuters. “I saw from a video clip, I think it was him. He hung on to a rope attached to a fire basket and it broke. He didn’t die from fire or smoke.”
Crowds of onlookers had gathered nearby during the day and ambulances rushed to and from the scene as bodies were pulled from the smouldering ruins of the building, according to Reuters witnesses and footage broadcast on local news.
Dozens were being treated in hospitals in Sa Kaeo province across the border, where Thai provincial authorities said one Thai national had died in hospital and 70% of those affected showed symptoms of smoke inhalation.