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Search and rescue operations end at Kep building collapse site

Ben Sokhean / Khmer Times Share:
Rescue workers look under debris to locate survivors. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Kep city, Kep province –  The National Committee for Disaster Management yesterday ended search and rescue efforts at the site of a building collapse which killed 36 people and injured 23 in Kep province’s Kep city.

NCDM first vice president Kun Kim, who led rescue efforts since Friday’s collapse of the seven-storey building, announced at 11.30am yesterday that the operation has ended after all bodies had been removed from the rubble.

The building which was under construction collapsed at about 4.30pm Friday after workers had just finished work on the top floor and were partying on the ground floor.

Hundreds of rescuers, led by Mr Kim, used dozens of machinery to clear the debris in efforts to save victims buried under the rubble.

Hours after the collapse, Prime Minister Hun Sen flew by helicopter to visit victims at the provincial referral hospital where he ordered that rescue efforts be stepped up.

Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks on rescue efforts to the media. KT/Chor Sokunthea

A statement from Provincial Hall yesterday said 36 people, including six children, had died and their bodies had been handed over to their families for funerals.

“The joint rescue working groups pulled out a total of 59 victims, including 22 women, from the rubble of the collapsed building,” it said. “Thirty-six of them, including 14 women and six children were dead and 23, including eight women, were alive.”

According to the provincial land management report, the building’s construction began on August 20 and last month the provincial department of land management warned the owner that it was not being built following regulations.

Some survivors told reporters at the provincial referral hospital that they had been hired to work on the hotel building but were not briefed on safety precautions.

They claimed that a contractor, had also died during the collapse, and the hotel owners allowed them to live inside the building and they were paid weekly.

Dem Yun, 33, and his wife, Koem Tem, 31, from Kampot province’s Chum Kiri district, were among survivors rescued on Saturday afternoon after more than 20 hours being trapped under the rubble.

Ms Tem, who looked pale and exhausted, said in the hospital that she and her husband were injured in the collapse and were struggling to free themselves.

“We tried to move but were stuck fast. We shouted for help but no one heard us,” Ms Tem said. “We had no food or water and my husband kept digging at the rubble before managing to create a gap through which we could breathe.”

Mr Yun is in intensive care as he sustained critical injuries.

Ms Tem also expressed her gratitude to Mr Hun Sen who visited her at the hospital and supported her family.

Mr Hun Sen helps pull out a survivor from the debris. KT/Chor Sokunthea

“I wish to express my gratitude to all rescuers and Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen, who never give up on us even though he is very busy with his job,” she said

Another survivor Phea Sophon, 26, from Banteay Meanchey province, said the body of his four-month pregnant wife was retrieved from the rubble yesterday.

He said he was on the ground floor when the building collapsed and that he and his friends were having a drinking party after the contractor announced that they had completed building the top floor.

“Shortly before the collapse, I heard cracking sounds from one of the pillars,” he said. “I managed to get out of the building but was still injured by falling debris.”

“Unfortunately, my pregnant wife was stuck in the building and it was the worst experience in my life,” Mr Sophon added.

He called on the government to find the reasons behind the collapse and provide justice to his family as he had lost his wife.

“I don’t know why it collapsed. I had been working at the site for a few months,” he said. “We are so poor that we decided to live inside the construction site to save money.”

Another victim Ouk Oeun, 48, from Prey Veng province’s Preah Sdech district, yesterday said that he and his friends were at the party during the collapse.

“At about 3 pm on Friday we finished the top floor and at about 4 pm we started partying on the ground floor. After I drank a can of beer, a friend asked me to go out to find some mangos to eat,” he said. “But after I took a few steps outside, the building collapsed and I was trapped for hours before being rescued.

“Before rescuers found me, I thought I may be dead because it was so dark and silent,” Mr Oeun added. “Now, I feel like I have been born again.”

However, Mr Oeun said that his wife Chey Phon, 35 was found dead yesterday in the rubble.

Nhim Ton, 25, another victim, said his wife Chey Phors, 24 and his one-year-old daughter Ton Ravy also died in the collapse and their bodies were found yesterday.

Workers man a tractor to remove piles of debris. KT/Chor Sokunthea

He blamed the contractor for using substandard construction materials.

Mr Ton said he was leaving the building when it collapsed at 4.30 pm Friday.

“I was walking out to the gate when it suddenly collapsed and a piece of concrete hit me,” he said. “I wanted to save my beloved wife and child, but I was not able too.”

Mr Ton said that when the building collapsed some workers were still on the top floor while many others were having a party on the ground floor.

Kep city resident Vong Rin, 62, who visited the collapse site, yesterday said such an incident should not have happened in the province.

“I am very shocked and regret what happened here,” he said. “I used to see such collapses on TV and social media and now I am seeing one with my own eyes.”

Mr Rin said that following the deadly building collapse in Sihanoukville and one in Siem Reap province, Kep authorities should have made sure none happened in the province.

Lieutenant General Pouv Phary, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ Engineering Unit who led the machinery to remove the debris, said on Saturday night that the rescue team were finding it difficult to save the lives of those who were still trapped.”

Joint forces collaborate in the rescue operation. KT/Chor Sokunthea

“Although we are facing some obstacles, we are trying our best to rescue the victims,” he said. “We decided to cut off metal and concrete to rescue them. We have so far rescued more than 20 workers.

A medical official who refused to be named said at the scene yesterday that most of the victims died at the scene due to serious injuries, noting that many were trapped for several hours.

“We tried our best to save as many as we could,” he said.

Following the collapse, Land Management Minister Chea Sophara established a working group to conduct an investigation.

According to a statement on Friday, Mr Sophara said the working group comprises 11 ministry senior officials and is tasked with reviewing the construction of the building.

The group is also assigned to inspect the terms and conditions of the building’s contractors and report to the ministry as soon as possible, he added.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng said at the scene on Saturday that the building collapsed because poor quality construction material was used.

“The reason for the collapse is because it was badly constructed,” he said. “Even now no specific persons are held responsible, but one thing we know is that building materials were substandard.”

“Based on the law, they need to conduct inspections but maybe [officials] failed to conduct thorough inspections,” Mr Kheng said. “We need to find answers.”

National Police Commissioner General Neth Savoeun on Friday ordered the authorities to search for those linked to the construction project, including the building owner, contractors and workers to identify those responsible for the incident.

Mr Hun Sen visits a survivor in hospital. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Police identified the building owners as Ak Sarun, and his wife, Chhiv Sothy who live in Preah Sihanouk province’s Sihanoukville.

Kep provincial police chief Brigadier General Ben Dara said the duo had been arrested on Saturday following an order from Gen Savoeun and were sent to Kep city.

“We detained them at the provincial police station and will soon send them to the provincial court for further questioning,” he said.

A construction supervisor was also reportedly detained for questioning over the collapse.

Speaking to reporters during a press conference to end rescue operations at the scene yesterday, Mr Hun Sen said some critics, politicians and government officials have urged him to remove Kep provincial governor Ken Sitha.

“They said that when the building collapsed in Sihanoukville, provincial governor [Yun Min] decided to resign from his position and they ask if the Kep provincial governor is going to resign,” he said.

“Deadly building collapses don’t just happen in the Kingdom…even in the US they also happen,” Mr Hun Sen said. “I wish to say that I will not remove him from his position.”

He expressed his great sorrow to the families of those who died in the collapse and announced that each family would get $50,000 raised by the government and donors.

Mr Hun Sen said that those who survived would get $10,000 each while seven victims who were trapped under the rubble for several hours would receive $20,000 each.

The premier said he hopes the payout will help to ease the suffering and difficulties for victims who were injured and the families of tthe deceased.

He also expressed his gratitude to rescue teams and generous people who donated money to support the victims’ families. An official said yesterday the government had received $1.96 million from corporate and individual donors.

Most of the victims are construction workers and their children. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Mr Hun Sen also said that the draft Law on Construction, which aims to further regulate the Kingdom’s booming construction sector and was approved by the National Assembly in October, would become law soon.

“I believe that after the law comes into effect, such incidents will be reduced or permanently eliminated,” he said.

The United States, Australian and Chinese embassies in Phnom Penh also expressed sadness over those who died in the collapse and extended their sympathies to their families.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims and others impacted, and we express full support for ongoing rescue efforts,” US ambassador Patrick Murphy said.

“We send our hopes and prayers for the rescue and recovery operation. [Australia] remains committed to supporting [Cambodia] in improving construction safety standards,” Australian ambassador Pablo Kang said.

Friday’s collapse is the third in the Kingdom in less than seven months.

In June, the collapse of a Chinese-owned building in Sihanoukville killed 28 and injured 26 workers. Authorities have said that it was built without a permit and local officials ordered construction work to be halted several times, but the builders did not pay heed.

In December, three people were killed and more than a dozen sustained critical injuries in a temple building collapse in Siem Reap province’s Siem Reap city.

Joint forces put in effort to remove debris and rescue survivors. KT/Chor Sokunthea
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