Sihanoukville, Preah Sihanouk province – When 16-year-old Chhun Aun Neng regained consciousness, she was pinned beneath tonnes of rubble following the collapse of a seven-storey building under construction here.
The teenager – disoriented, afraid and alone – immediately thought of her parents, whom she worked with at the construction site. As the hours slowly stretched on, she was not sure if she would ever see them again, or if she would make it out alive.
“I survived because I drank milk I had bought the day before the collapse,” she said, sitting in a hospital recovering after being rescued nearly 24 hours after the collapse.
“I used my feet to pull the milk closer to my hand. I drank it and my energy returned before I was rescued,” she said. “I haven’t been able to find my parents since the building collapsed. I fainted when the building collapsed. When I woke up, I was weak, and my head was pinned under a piece of metal.”
“Please help my parents because my parents are still under the collapsed building,” she added.
Hundreds of rescuers have descended upon the site of the collapse, the cause of which has not yet been officially determined. As of last night, authorities confirmed the death toll at 19, noting that 24 people have been rescued from the rubble.
Speaking to media at the site on Saturday, provincial Governor Yun Min said the Chinese-owned building was not being constructed legally.
“That building was built without a permit, and our officials went down to prohibit the construction two times already, but the builders did not listen,” Mr Min said. “We would like to appeal to all constructing companies to follow standards.”
A provincial police report noted authorities have detained four people believed to be involved in the construction of the building, which was to be a hotel before it collapsed at about 4am on Saturday.
It identified them as Chen Kun, a Chinese national who leased the land for construction, Deng Xing Gui, a building contractor, Gao Yu, a concrete wall contractor, and Nhek Huy, a Cambodian who owned the land.
“They are being questioned at the provincial police station and they are facing legal action,” the report said. “A provincial police unit is coordinating and cooperating with other units to remove the debris, in case there are more victims buried underneath the rubble, while simultaneously carrying out investigations.”
The Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh last night issued a statement expressing its “deepest condolences” to the victims of the tragedy.
“The embassy immediately reached out to Chinese enterprises and chambers of commerce in Cambodia to mobilise human resources, materials as well as equipment, including large excavators to help with the rescue,” it added. “With reference to the three Chinese nationals who have been brought under control by the Cambodian police for investigations into the accident, the embassy supports a thorough investigation.”
According to neighbours, those in charge of the building’s construction were warned about erecting too many floors.
A Be Samen, 55, said he woke up to the noise of the collapse at about 4.30am on Saturday. He said that he did not get up from bed and his wife and two children were still in bed.
“I was shocked when I heard the sound,” Mr Be Samen said. “It sounded like cluster bombs dropped during the war.”
He said at about 5am, he walked out of his home to peer into where the noise came from, but he was greeted with darkness and dust.
“Nearing 5am, I went downstairs and walked on the main road then I saw the collapsed seven story building,” Mr Be Samen said. “There were about 10 people already there.”
He noted that the owner of the building was warned by provincial officials for building over five floors.
“This owner of the building was warned twice while he was building the fifth storey, but he continued to build two more,” Mr Be Samen said. “I think it collapsed because the site can’t support the building. Another reason could be that the metal frames were too small.”
He said the owner of the land is a Cambodian who left for the United States, but his land was leased to Chinese investors who wanted to build a hotel and casino.
“I’ve monitored the construction of the building since the beginning, this building was built without foundations,” Mr Be Samen said, adding that the collapse affected other structures, including his home and a Japanese shop.
“I will review the damages to my house and tell provincial authorities about this,” he said.
Veng Phalla, Mr Be Samen’s 51-year-old wife, said her family was lucky that the building did not collapse on top of their home.
“I was very shocked when I heard the sound, and my children were shocked too – they hugged me,” she said. “My family is lucky that the building did not collapse atop our home.”
Environment Minister Say Samal and provincial Mr Min yesterday inspected the site. Mr Min said rescue workers continued to find more victims.
“Our forces are working hard to find victims day and night without stopping,” Mr Min said.
When asked about what caused the collapse, Mr Min said: “We do not know the clear reason that caused the building to collapse; we are creating an investigation committee for this case.”
Mao Sopheap, a 20-year-old victim, said he was sleeping when the building collapsed.
“When I woke up, the building had already collapsed. I opened my eyes, but I could not see anything, I tried to move my arms and legs, but they were pinned,” he said.
Mr Sopheap said he he tried to yell for help, but no one could hear him so he began trying to fight his way out of the rubble.
“I clawed at the concrete and lost my nail,” he said. “Luckily as I was trying to free myself, rescuers found me.”
Seng Nong, director of the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Referral Hospital, said about a dozen bodies have been returned to their families, while the rest are still in hospital.
“Fifteen dead victims were sent to their families for a funeral, while three dead victims remain in hospital,” he said, noting that the victims hailed from outside of the province.
Survivors of the collapse say that between 50 to 60 people were on the site when the building caved in, meaning more than 10 may still be missing.
Khim Pov, 47, travelled to Sihanoukville after hearing of the collapse because her family was working on the site.
At the hospital, she was sitting next to her 20-year-old son who survived the collapse, worrying about her other son and husband who are still missing. At least three excavator are still sorting through the rubble as rescuers continue to locate survivors.
“My son and nephew were rescued, but I do not know where my husband Soy Mao and my son Chhun Thean are,” Ms Pov said. “I don’t know whether they survived or not.”
Ms Pov said she had five children, and if she lost her husband, it would be difficult for her to provide for them.
“I ask that all forces help to find my husband and son,” she said. “I hope that my husband and son are still alive.”
Lou Kim Chhun, vice president of the Cambodian Red Cross, yesterday visited victims at the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Referral Hospital with Prak Chanthoeun, a secretary of state with the Labour Ministry.
Mr Kim Chhun said Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the distribution of about $1,200 to each surviving victim, while the CRC will provide about $250.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen provided $10,000 for each dead victim and the Labour Ministry provided $1,000,” he said. “CRC in Phnom Penh and provincial authorities provided $2,500 to each dead victim.”
Mr Kim Chhun said provincial authorities are currently investigating the cause of the collapse.
“We do not know the real reason the building collapsed because we are working hard day and night to find victims,” he said. “On behalf of government officials and the provincial referral hospital, we regret this incident.”
Mr Chanthoeun said the Labour Ministry is paying attention to victims of the collapse.
“Please believe that our government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, will not leave the victims,” he said. “We will help victims and their families.”
Mr Hun Sen, who arrived back from Bangkok yesterday and immediately began travelling to the site, expressed his regret over the incident on Facebook.
“I will continue to move emergency rescue workers to the site of the collapse in Preah Sihanouk province,” he said. “Thank you to all compatriots that shared their condolences and sadness.”