New Orleans, Louisiana – Now 30-years-old, Justin Ong is on a cruise along the Mississippi river in New Orleans as he reminisces about what happened to the Singaporean Boat Racing Team during the 2007 Water Festival, when their boat capsized and five teammates drowned.
At 19-years-old, Mr Ong survived the boating accident while representing his home country Singapore.
“I joined the Water Festival boat race in 2007 as part of Singapore’s national dragon boat team,” Mr Ong says. “We joined because there was an invitation for Southeast Asian countries to take part.”
“We were returning to shore after the race when a freak wave smashed our boat against a pontoon near the launch point,” he adds. “Six members sitting in the front of the boat were sucked under the pontoon. Five died and it is difficult to verify exactly how long it took to find me.”
The government spent dozens of hours recovering the bodies of the five victims from the vast waters of the Tonle Sap river.
“I was found downstream, near the Royal Palace,” Mr Ong says. “The bodies of the five who died were found two days later, near Koh Pich.”
“I was rescued by fisherman. The other surviving members of the boat were not sucked under the pontoon so a safety boat picked them up,” he says. “All of the bodies of my friends who died were found.”
The first body found was 20-year-old Chee Wei Cheng; 24-year-old Jeremy Goh and 31-year-old Stephen Loh were found about 40 hours later; 27-year-old Poh Boon San was then found and 23-year-old Reuben Kee’s body was recovered soon after.
“The Cambodian government extended all the necessary aid and support once the incident happened, starting with search and rescue efforts to ensuring the survivors were taken to hospital and taken care of when back in our hotels. They also facilitated our safe flight back to Singapore,” he says.
Mr Ong was not prepared 11 years ago. He says that the team was not briefed on how to prevent accidents.
“We did not do enough research or retrieve enough information about the festival,” he says. “It was a mistake on the part of the Singapore Dragon Boat Association.”
“Obviously, I will always remember the accident when I think of Cambodia and the Water Festival,” Mr Ong adds. “Not only because it was a tragedy, but also as a reminder that life is precious. No other country has taken part in the Water Festival since 2007.”
The Water Festival is one of the biggest events in the Cambodian calendar, attracting both local and international tourists.
It takes place from Wednesday until Friday and the boat races, trade fair and live performances hosted during the Water Festival will attract roughly two million people.
City Hall says more than 10,000 security forces will be deployed to provide security for the event.
Mean Chanyada, Phnom Penh deputy governor, says that the issue of security was discussed with Governor Khuong Sreng last week.
“This year, 12,754 security forces will be deployed to ensure safety and public order so that visitors can enjoy the event,” Mr Chanyada says.
He says that 298 boats will participate in races this year, while another 15 vessels will take part in the nightly illuminated boat processions.
Despite his ordeal 11 years ago, Mr Ong has fond memories of the Water Festival. He says that the day will come when member countries of the Southeast Asian bloc will once again participate in the boat races.
“I think the festival is a very important tradition and cultural aspect of Cambodia that should definitely continue,” Mr Ong says. “I can already see improvements being made and initiatives implemented to increase safety – and this is good.”
“I believe it is possible for the Water Festival to one day have absolutely zero injuries or casualties, and even become a worldwide event inviting not only Asean [countries], but also global dragon boat teams to come and compete,” he adds.