After flames consumed Poipet’s Grand Diamond City hotel and casino, Keo Vandy arrived at nearby Trach pagoda early Friday morning to see if her husband was among the bodies brought for cremation.
Standing out from the distraught crowd in her pink blouse, Vandy clutched a copy of her husband Keo Visoth’s driver identification, hoping authorities would know whether he had survived. No one could give her a clear answer.
“I went to work as normal [Thursday morning]…” said Vandy, 32. “But when I learned [of the fire], I ran everywhere to find my husband. I haven’t seen him for two days now.”
Vandy only knew that her husband had been inside the casino on Wednesday night when a fire ignited on the first floor. He worked as a cleaner.
By Friday afternoon, at least 26 people were dead, according to both Banteay Meanchey provincial spokesperson Sek Sokhom and Deputy provincial governor Ngor Mengchruon.
“We finished our operation to rescue the victims at 5:30 p.m.,” Mengchruon said. “There were no Cambodians [killed]. Most of the dead victims were Thai.”
Banteay Meanchey Provincial Governor Om Reatrey posted on his Facebook page Friday evening that there were “nearly 60 injured,” and those killed included Thai, Chinese and Malaysian nationals. Sokhom told CamboJA the number of injured was at least 100 as of Friday evening.
Reatrey did not respond to requests for comment to explain the discrepancy in reported injuries. Sokhom said authorities had scheduled a press release for December 31 to clarify further.
All throughout Friday, the relatives of missing Cambodian workers searched for information about their health and whereabouts.
One man, Ban Doch, held a portrait of his niece, Som Sreymom, who he said worked as a cleaner on the second floor, above where the fire started. He had since lost contact with her and waited outside Trach pagoda with Sreymom’s three young children.
“If anyone happens to see this person please let me know,” Doch said to the crowd gathered around. “Whether she is dead or alive I just want to know, my niece has disappeared.”
There were around 1,000 people inside the casino, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who expressed his condolences to the victims at a road construction ceremony in Kampot on Friday.
“This is a tragedy,” Hun Sen said. “[The casino] has to be equipped with more tools [to put out fire]… we couldn’t entirely control [the fire] because we could not access [the building].”
The border town of Poipet is a hotspot for casinos, some of which have been centers for Cambodia’s widespread human trafficking and online scam industry. The Grand Diamond City hotel and casino does not appear to have been publicly linked to scamming or trafficking.
The opposition party Candlelight also released a statement lamenting the fire and calling for an investigation into its cause.
“The government should respond to this tragic loss and investigate to find those who are involved, ensure they face the law, and provide compensation to victims’ families,” Candlelight stated.
The cause of the blaze remains unconfirmed, but provincial spokesperson Sokhom said earlier the fire may have been triggered by an overload of electricity used to power Christmas lights.
When reached by phone, Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Sith Luos said he was too busy to comment.
CamboJA reporters reached the casino shortly after midnight Thursday as smoke simmered from the charred building.
Noun Vutha, a street food vendor, paced near a barrier police had erected, his eyes still frantic from what he had witnessed.
“I could smell the electric wires burning and I saw people waving their phone lights, asking for help,” he recalled.
He had begged for the flames to subside, but the wind blew stronger.
“I saw people burning with fire and some jumped from the casino building,” he said. “Most of them broke their necks or arms right in front of me.”
Clusters of passerby loitered in the roundabout beside Grand Diamond City, staring at what was left of its blackened facade in silence as the neon lights of casinos and ambulances flashed in unison.
Authorities declared the rescue mission complete by early evening but Vandy remained at the gate of Trach pagoda until the sun set, hoping to hear something about her husband. She had prayed all day to grandmother Mao, a local neak ta spirit known to protect Poipet residents, and received some consolation earlier when her sister forwarded a video showing firefighters dragging a man out of a dark stairwell.
Amidst the smoke and grainy pixels of the video, Vandy could make out a face she believed was her husband’s. The shirt matched his cleaner’s uniform.
She thought he may have been taken to a hospital just across the Thai border though she could not visit to check as she had no passport.
“I am concerned about him, but I believe that he may not be dead because the rescue team helped him,” she said. “Maybe he was just unconscious.”
She planned to return to the pagoda the next day.
“I will find him,” Vandy said. “Even if he’s dead, I’ll try to find his body.”
Additional reporting by Chhorn Chansy, Khuon Narim and Phon Sotthyroth