Buried alive but not alone: Sihanoukville survivors’ stories

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Kak Kea in a hospital after he was rescued from a collapsed building
Sok Ros comforts his 18-year-old son Kak Kea in a hospital after he was rescued from a collapsed building three days after being buried alive. KT/Chor Sokunthea

How relatives helped each other survive building collapse

The building collapse on Saturday in Sihanoukville killed 28 people and injured dozens of others. Rescue workers continued to locate survivors days after the incident. On Monday, they pulled out the last two survivors after they were buried for nearly 60 hours. They share their story of survival.

Sihanoukville, Preah Sihanouk province – Lying on a hospital bed with his father next to him and an IV drip attached to his arm, Kak Kea says he cannot forget the stench that overwhelmed him as he struggled to survive while buried under the rubble of a building that collapsed here.

Read More: Deadly construction collapse mounts to 28

On Saturday at about 4am, he and three other construction workers fell down two stories when the building collapsed. When he awoke moments later, he called out to his colleagues to make sure they were all right.

One of them eventually yelled back, but the survivors soon learned that one of their colleagues had died, making the situation even more gruelling as the corpse began to smell.

Mr Kea, 18, would spend the next three days or so in dust and darkness, with the corpse of one of his friends.

“I saw another worker dead next to me, and I yelled for someone to help, but no one heard me,” he says. “When the building collapsed, I was sleeping on the second floor with three friends. I was not awake when I fell down to the ground as the building collapsed.”

“When I awoke, I thought: ‘oh, I’m alive,’” he adds.

Ros Sitha is discovered buried alive under the rubble. Sihanoukville Police

While in hospital with his father at his bedside, Mr Kea says he and his colleagues were lucky to be alive. While buried, he could still move his hands, but his legs were pinned, making it impossible for him to sit up.

Mr Kea says one of his colleagues, 40-year-old Ros Sitha, his mother’s cousin, yelled and told him not to move his arms and legs so his energy could be conserved.

“I was getting weaker and weaker,” Mr Kea says. “I could die at any moment if no one found me.”

If it wasn’t for a bag of rice he had bought before the collapse, Mr Kea would not have made it. While buried beneath the debris, he had no water and little food.

“I did not drink water for more than two days, but on the second day I realised I had bought milled rice, so I ate the rice and then rescuers found me,” Mr Kea says.

“I felt hopeless and I missed my parents,” he says. “I was thinking that I would not meet them again.”

He feared for his life, and the lives of the other survivors. But after the rescue came, he was given money by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“I thank the Prime Minister for providing me with $30,000,” Mr Kea says.

As for Mr Sitha, he says he woke up to a cacophony of concrete smashing against metal.

He says the sound of the collapse is as ubiquitous in his mind now as it was several days ago when the incident happened.

“I heard a very strong sound from the building collapsing, and at the time, I fell down to the ground,” Mr Sitha says.

After the fall, he would spend the next few moments remembering his wife and two children.

“While I was buried beneath the debris, my energy got weaker and weaker, I was hopeless on whether I could survive,” Mr Sitha says. “I thought I was going to lose my life; who would help to provide for my wife and children?”

Rescue workers clear debris following the building collapse. KT/Chor Sokunthea

However, determination to survive began to creep back into his body the moment he heard Mr Kea’s voice.

He says despite not being able to physically help each other, Mr Kea’s voice served as an anchor for hope and what was needed to stay alive, until rescue came for them.

“I was very happy when rescuers found me because it was like I was born again,” Mr Sitha says, adding that the ordeal he was put through made him realise the importance of his family. “I will stop working as a construction worker because I’m scared of this. I will return to my home and meet my family.”

Sok Ros, Mr Kea’s father, says he did not expect his son to be alive after learning of the collapse.

“I was shocked and hopeless,” he says, adding that he came to the hospital for what he thought would be to pick up the lifeless body of his son. “My family prepared a funeral at home because we were not optimistic.”

Mr Ros says the family thought Mr Kea would have either died when the building collapsed or starved to death beneath the rubble.

However, he says optimism returned when Mr Kea’s uncle saw an incoming ambulance with Mr Kea.

“At the time, I became very excited, and was filled with incomparable happiness because our family had waited for two nights and three days,” he says.

Seng Nong, director of Preah Sihanouk Provincial Referral Hospital, says all 28 dead victims have been returned to their respective families. Mr Nong adds that two out of 26 injured were sent home after they recovered from their ordeal.

“Among all the injured victims, one woman broke her leg and was sent to hospital in Phnom Penh for treatment,” he says. “Now all the victims have gotten better and I hope that they will leave the hospital soon.”

Mr Nong says victims sent to his hospital were visited by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Environment Minister Say Samal, Minister in Charge of Council of Ministers Bin Chhin and other government officials.

Today, Deputy Prime Minister Kong Sam Ol is expected to visit the victims and provide aid.

Lim Bun Heng, spokesman for the provincial court, yesterday noted that seven suspects have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and conspiracy, including Chen Kun, the building owner, Deng Xing Gui, the construction supervisor, Gao Yu, a concrete wall contractor and Nhek Huy, the owner of the land.

Mr Bun Heng said three other suspects are still at large and an investigating judge is handling the case.

Survivors of the collapse recover in hospital. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Yesterday, the International Labour Organisation issued a statement addressing the “risks thousands of workers face every day and demanding action to improve safety and health” in construction sites in the Kingdom.

“[According to government reports] a total of 25,206 workplace accidents were reported in 2018, with 200 workers having died and 2,711 seriously injured due to work related accidents and diseases,” ILO said.

“Tackling this problem calls for action in a number of areas […], including a review of regulations and enforcement in the construction sector, an introduction of occupational safety and health standards and building safety standards, an intensified labour inspection and zero accident campaigns as well as promoting a preventive safety,” it added.

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