Kep city, Kep province – Chorn Phally says she woke up surrounded by darkness and the humming of machinery. She says she did not know what time it was.
She says after some time she realises she was trapped beneath rubble for almost three days last week after a seven-storey building she had been living and working in collapsed. She says she can still hear people dying around her.
Ms Phally, 36, is one of the 23 survivors in the building collapse which killed 36 construction workers and their family members, including six children.
She was the last survivor buried under the debris and found alive by rescue workers as a three-day search and rescue operation wrapped up on Sunday.
Speaking to a reporter while lying on a bed in the Kep provincial referral hospital early this week, Ms Phally, a mother of three who lost an 18-year-old son, two siblings and a brother-in-law in the building collapse, says that she has no hope that she would have survived.
“It was the worst jinx for my family. Four of them lost their lives during the collapse,” says Ms Phally, who sustained serious head and right leg injuries.
The owners of the hotel, Ek Sarun and his wife, Chhiv Sothy, were charged on Monday with manslaughter and causing involuntary bodily harm under Articles 207 and 236 of the Criminal Code following their Saturday arrest.
However, they were released after posting an $87,000 bail to avoid pre-trial detention.
Leaving home for a job
Last month, 10 days before the collapse of the building, Ms Phally and her husband, Bal Pheap, 40, looked for jobs after their return from Thailand. She lives at their home in Banteay Meanchey province’s Mongkol Borey district.
Ms Phally says she and her husband were waiting for their passports to be renewed at a processing office in Battambang province when Ms Phally received a phone call from her younger brother, Chorn Phloy, 26, asking her to work with him in the unfinished hotel. Mr Phloy died in the collapse.
“He said: ‘Hey sister, please come to work with me because here we have jobs as construction workers so you can earn some money to support your family,” she says.
Ms Phally and her husband Mr Pheap decided to leave their home village in Banteay Meanchey province and headed to Kep.
“I spent about 700,000 riels [about $17.5] for travel expense from my village to here and I hoped that we could earn more money before we returned to work in Thailand,” she says.
“We have just worked here about 10 days before the collapse, we suppose to receive a weekly payment and then bad luck came to us,” Ms Phally adds.
The building under construction collapsed at about 4.30pm on January 3 after workers had just finished work on the top floor and were partying on the ground floor.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng says the building collapsed because inferior construction material was used.
“The reason for the collapse is because it was badly constructed,” Mr Kheng says. “Even now no specific persons are held responsible, but one thing we know is that building materials were substandard.”
Mr Pheap, Ms Phally’s husband, also a survivor, says that he was on the fifth floor while his wife was on the ground floor cooking dinner.
“Some workers were on the ground floor partying but I was on the fifth floor. Suddenly, the building collapsed and I was trapped under the debris,” Mr Pheap says. “I was trapped for several hours before rescue workers found and saved me.”
Before the collapse, Ms Phally says she was with her younger sister Chorn Chanda, 22, and Mr Phloy.
“When I was speaking with my brother and sister, the ceiling fell on us and then it became very dark,” she recalls. “My leg and head were injured. It was difficult for me to breathe because the dust flew into my mouth and nose.”
“I tried to move toward my siblings but I could not. Loud voices became so quiet. I thought I may die soon as I became exhausted due to much bleeding,” she says.
Then she says she fell unconscious because of suffocation and bleeding.
“While in a coma, I heard people dying around me. The voices broke my heart. I tried to reach out to a baby nearby who was being hugged by her mother but they were not breathing,” she says. “I was so hungry and thirsty, no food and water.”
“I was trying to shake people around me to see if they were still alive, but none of them woke up, and then I thought I will be dying soon.”
“I was trying to get up to fetch my urine to drink but I could not move because the broken ceiling was close to my head. What I could do was struggle to breathe,” she adds.
She did not see the sun for nearly three days inside the rubble.
“I thought I was stuck under the rubble overnight because inside was too dark like midnight but later I learned that I was buried under the rubble for three days,” she says.
Rescue workers say they found Ms Phally alive under the rubble at 8am on January 5 after she was trapped for three days. Ms Phally was rescued when dozens of machinery were used to remove hundreds of tonnes of concrete.
She was the last victim to be found alive on the last day of the rescue operation.
Ms Phally says while being trapped, she felt the machinery running over piles of concrete she was lying under.
“When an excavator was removing rubble, I could see the light. Then, I was trying to call them to stop the machinery,” she recalls. “I wanted to tell them that I am still alive but none of them heard my voice because the sound of the machinery was stronger than my voice. Then, I was trying to raise one foot to push the debris up to signal to rescue workers. Finally, they found me.”
An excavator driver who asked not to be named says at the scene last week his team was trying hard to avoid injuring survivors underneath piles of huge concrete.
“It was hard for us to remove the rubble because we needed to be careful all the time and we thought some victims might be still alive under the rubble,” he says. “If we saw a sign of the victims, we had to stop all machinery immediately.”
He says that most of the victims found on the last day died except for Ms Phally.
Major Chap Putdavy, a commander from Rapid Rescue Company 711, says the Kep building collapse was the second experience for her after a Chinese-owned building collapsed in Preah Sihanouk province’s Sihanoukville in June killing 28 people.
“Senior Minister Kun Kim, first vice president of the National Committee for Disaster Management, came here to order rescue teams and handle the situation,” Ms Putdavy says. “He ordered us to come early to study the scene and see how we could rescue the people.”
She says that although her teams faced difficulties in rescuing injured workers, they never gave it up.
“We faced many obstacles because this building had many floors. When it collapsed, it made it hard for us to find and rescue the victims,” she says, noting that her team comprised 46 rescue workers, including 26 women.
However, Ms Putdavy says her unit cooperated well with other units and health officials.
Chiv Dina, a doctor at Kep provincial referral hospital, says Ms Phally was discharged from hospital on Monday to attend a funeral for her son and siblings in her village in Banteay Meanchey.
Dr Dina says despite Ms Phally being allowed to return home, she continues to receive medical treatment in a Banteay Meanchey hospital.
Ms Phally’s brother, Chorn Chaina, 34, who took care of her at the Kep hospital, says everyone thought that his sister would have died.
“After hearing about the incident I came here, but for the past two days, she could not be found and we thought she had died,” Mr Chaina says.
“We were too astonished when rescue workers found her alive under the rubble,” he says. “But we were still very saddened because four of our family members, including my 18-year-old nephew, died.”
Mr Pheap also thought his wife would have died.
“We lost hope because most had already died,” he says.
Prime Minister Hun Sen also visited Ms Phally at the hospital.
Ms Phally says now she has been reborn. She expresses profound gratitude to rescue workers, Mr Hun Sen and other officials who helped.
“Now I feel like I am reborn. I pray for the spirit to help me,” she says. While being trapped inside the debris, I thought that if someone gave me a drop of water, I will never forget their kindness.”