Fire at Bangkok nightclub kills 61, injures 200
By DENIS D. GRAY – 1 hour ago
BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — It was billed as a New Year’s Eve blowout and a last-night celebration of the wildly popular, classy nightclub before it moved to a new location. “Goodbye Santika,” the promotion poster read. Before the revelry was over, at least 61 people were dead and more than 200 injured after they tried to flee what swiftly became a charred, gutted ruin in a glitzy Bangkok entertainment area.
Among the casualties was a Singaporean who died and at least 35 foreigners who were injured, including citizens of Australia, Belgium, Britain, France, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the United States, according to officials and reporters.
A full accounting was not expected for about a week since nearly 30 of the corpses were charred beyond recognition.
The cause of the fire was under investigation, with several witnesses saying a fireworks display during the New Year’s countdown ignited the blaze. But one foreigner said he saw no pyrotechnics at the club and a video shot by a guest showed many inside the club waving sparklers shortly before the fire erupted.
A senior Bangkok official, Pongsak Kasemsan, ordered a preliminary investigation report to be completed within three days and vowed to crack down on unsafe entertainment venues, some of which have been described as death traps by local residents.
“Everybody was pushing against each other trying to get out to the front door as quickly as possible. I saw people, particularly young girls, being pushed away and crushed underneath as others were stomping on them trying to get out,” said Sompong Tritaweelap, who lives in an apartment behind the nightclub.
Victims died from burns, smoke inhalation and injuries during the stampede.
Video footage of the disaster showed bloodied, bruised and burned victims being dragged out of the burning two-story club or managing to run through the door or out shattered windows. The video — provided to AP Television News by rescue workers — showed flames racing through the entire building even as the rescue operation was going on.
Sompong said the fire spread through the entire building within 10 minutes.
“People were screaming for help from every window. It was a terrible sight. Their hair and clothes were on fire but there was nothing they could do as the fire engulfed them,” he said.
The Phranakorn Center, an official agency dealing with accidents in Bangkok, said at least 61 people died and that 35 foreigners were among the injured. The Narenthorn Emergency Center, which was coordinating relief efforts, said more than 200 had been injured.
Police Lt. Col. Sujettana Sotthibandhu, a forensics expert, said it might take about a week to identify almost 30 bodies that were badly disfigured.
The Santika Club, popular with young, affluent Thais as well as tourists and expatriates, was celebrating not only the New Year but also the last night at its location in the Ekamai entertainment district. The owner was planning to move to a new location since the lease on the property could not be extended.
The Web site of The Nation newspaper quoted one partygoer, Somchai Frendi, as saying the blaze was caused when the countdown fireworks ignited the second floor ceiling, which was covered with soundproofing material.
Sompong quoted a maid at the club as giving a similar account.
“Some of the sparks fell onto the carpeted floor as well. Within seconds, smoke was everywhere,” he quoted her as saying.
But Steven Hall, 35, from Cardiff Wales in Britain, said he saw no fireworks on the stage.
“As far as I could see, the fire looked like it started at the ceiling level,” Hall said in a hospital interview. “The first thing I remember was seeing people on the stage and seeing flames coming out from along the ceiling level above the stage and seeing embers come down and looking at the faces of people on the stage looking horrified.”
“There was a band and a DJ — I could not see any pyrotechnics,” he said.
Police Lt. Gen. Jongrak Jutanont said an initial investigation found the club’s safety system was “substandard” but did not elaborate.
The club was packed with about 1,000 celebrants, police officers at the scene said. Rescue workers said most of the bodies were found in a pit area surrounding the stage.
The corpses, placed in white body bags, were laid out in rows in the parking lot in front of the club, which was strewn with shoes of the victims, water bottles, parking stickers and other debris.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva visited the still-smoldering club just after dawn. Later, during a visit at one of the hospitals, he said, “The question is why they let someone take fireworks inside the pub and light them up.”
Safety regulations are often loosely enforced in Thailand. A 1994 law requires motorcyclists to wear helmets, but bareheaded riders with policemen blithely looking on are a common sight on Bangkok’s streets today.
Associated Press writer Christopher Blake and AP photographer Sakchai Lalitkanjanakul contributed to this report.