BANGKOK, Jan 2 – Survivors recalled how revellers shoved and trampled on screaming victims to escape the New Year fire at a packed Bangkok club, as police Friday tried to piece together how nearly 60 people died.,
Newspapers here carried harrowing accounts of the scenes of panic and fear inside the Santika nightclub in the Thai capital’s popular Ekkamai district, where more than 200 people were also injured in the blaze early Thursday.
Mourners, some with coffins of victims in the back of trucks, trickled to the club to pray and to give offerings to the dead, while scores of people including foreigners remained in hospital after the tragic night.
Thanawut Santhong, who lost three friends, told the Bangkok Post newspaper that fire broke out within an hour of revellers ringing in the New Year.
He said each guest was given a sparkler to light up during the countdown to 2009, but suddenly smoke engulfed the club and all the lights went out.
"People were in panic after the blackout," he said. "The situation became worse as people screamed ‘fire’ and tried to escape."
He recalled party-goers crying, screaming, pushing and stepping on top of one another as they struggled to steer a way through the few doors out of the club, while flames rained down on people’s hair and clothes from the ceiling.
Early reports by police suggested the inferno might have been caused by a pyrotechnics display on stage soon after the New Year countdown, but officials said they were still investigating.
"The deputy national police chief chaired a meeting today (Friday) and laid out guidelines for police to investigate how the fire broke out," case officer Lieutenant Colonel Prawit Kangwol told AFP.
"The assumptions are a short circuit or small fireworks that triggered the fire inside the club."
Police General Jongrak Jutanont, deputy national police commissioner, said insurance fraud had been ruled out as a motive but that police had since 2004 refused Santika an operational licence because of safety concerns.
The club management had been seeking an injunction from the administrative court, and was allowed to remain open while the case progressed.
Emergency services headquarters secretary Chatree Charoencheewakul said the latest death toll was 59, with 86 of the injured still in hospital.
Thirty-eight people remain in intensive care.
A Singaporean national was among those killed and 41 foreigners, including citizens of Australia, France, Japan and Britain, were injured, Chatree said. Twenty-one foreign nationals remain in hospital.
Outside the gutted club, families of the dead accompanied by Buddhist monks gave offerings and said prayers for the dead.
People placed incense, flowers, fruit and even a flashlight for the dead on a table in front of the barricaded building.
Police say that it may take up to two weeks to determine conclusively what caused the fire.
Many of the trapped party-goers died of smoke inhalation, while others were crushed to death in the stampede to get out of the front exit.
There was a back exit as well, but that was known only to staff members.
Fire brigade officials have said the death toll was so high because there were few exits and the windows on the upper floors had iron bars across them. Some victims were also trapped in the basement of the club.
The club, popular with Bangkok’s elite, has a capacity of 1,000 people, and witnesses said it was heaving when the fire broke out.