Swaying footbridge 'triggered deadly Cambodia stampede'

Suspension bridge near Phnom Penh, where the stampede began (24 November 2010)
Image caption The panel found people panicked because they did not know that suspension bridges often swayed

A preliminary investigation into the stampede that left 456 people dead in Cambodia on Monday has found a swaying footbridge triggered the panic.

The disaster occurred as huge crowd used the bridge to get to an island near the capital, Phnom Penh, where an annual water festival was being held.

Eyewitnesses said some people were crushed on a bridge, while many others fell into the water and drowned.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has declared Thursday a day of national mourning.

He said the stampede was the country's biggest tragedy since the Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s, which left an estimated 1.7 million people dead.

'Too many people'

The committee set up to investigate the disaster, including cabinet ministers and city officials, interviewed several witnesses.

It found many of the people on the suspension bridge over the Bassac river to Diamond Island were from the countryside and were unaware that such structures often swayed in the wind or when large numbers of people used them, according to the private Bayon TV channel.

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Media captionThe BBC's Alastair Leithead: "Suddenly everyone was stampeding, trying to get out of that very confined space"

They subsequently became scared that it was going to collapse and tried to run off, sparking the stampede, the panel concluded. Those present heard shouts that the bridge was going to collapse, it said.

The committee added that the panic was exacerbated by the trouble people had breathing because they were so tightly packed together. Between 7,000 and 8,000 are thought to have been on the bridge at the time.

Survivors have criticised the authorities for causing congestion on the bridge by blocking a second route across the river and for responding slowly. Tens of thousands of people had gathered to attend the festival.

Sean Ngu, an Australian who was visiting family and friends in Cambodia, told the BBC: "There were too many people on the bridge and then both ends were pushing," he said. "This caused a sudden panic. The pushing caused those in the middle to fall to the ground, then [get] crushed."

"Panic started and at least 50 people jumped in the river. People tried to climb on to the bridge, grabbing and pulling [electric] cables which came loose and electrical shock caused more deaths," he added.

Officials initially said 378 people were killed and 755 others injured in the stampede but Social Affairs Minister Ith Samheng said on Wednesday that the official death toll was now 456 dead.

"Some bodies were transported home straightaway and some injured people died at home," he said.

The stampede is the world's worst since 2005, when more than 1,000 Shia pilgrims were crushed to death or drowned in the Tigris river in Baghdad, Iraq, after rumours of a suicide bomb attack sparked a panic.

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