Tourists jumped from Tiger's second storey

  • Published: 18/08/2012 at 05:11 PM
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PHUKET: Shocking accounts of tourists jumping from the second floor and others trampled in the panic to escape are emerging following the fire at Patong's Tiger Discoteque early on Friday morning.

Thailand's 17 assistant national police chiefs have announced the formation of an investigating committee to determine whether the popular nightspot was open after its mandated closing time. Four were killed in the blaze, and 11 treated in hospital, one with burns over 40% of his body.

Many were reported injured but required no treatment.

No charges have been filed so far.

A spokesman for the Tiger Group admitted customers were inside when the fire erupted and asserted that the two fire exits could not be used because electrical short-circuits started fires that blocked both. He said damage from the fire amounted to hundreds of millions of baht.

Pol Lt Gen Chalermkiart Sriworakan, an assistant national chief, said after inspecting the site: "A committee has been appointed to investigate facts and determine whether the disco was open for business after the official closing.

"The committee is also looking into what caused the fire, contacting witnesses and collecting evidence. Autopsies will be performed on those who died at the Office of Forensic Medicine." 

The latter, he said, would be carried out "as swiftly as possible".

"We have yet to file charges because the matter is still under investigation," he explained, adding that no relatives had come forward to inquire about the deceased. 

"Those concerned will be contacted, whether embassy personnel or members of the general public," Chalermkiart said, but presently the identities of the dead remain a mystery. He urged those who notice a friend or relative missing to contact either the provincial or Kathu police.

Chalermkiart said experts in evidence identification from the Region 8 police headquarters in Surat Thani were in Phuket to work on the case but refused to divulge any results of the investigation, saying only they were trying to determine how the fire started.

He said witness statements were being taken, and that those who died included both foreigners and Thais: "One of the dead is most likely a Thai waitress," he explained, "because a friend recogniaed her wristwatch and bracelet."

According to police the fire at Tiger, on Soi Bangla in Patong, occurred during a heavy rain shortly after two electric power transformers "exploded". Patong police were notified of the incident at 3.20am Friday, and rushed to the scene where they found "pandemonium" -- "a thousand" tourists running in all directions trying to save their lives, some jumping from the second floor, others falling as they descended the stairs from the upstairs entrance which, with the fire exits blocked by flames, was the only avenue of exit.

Kanyaporn Kantong of Sri Saket described the scene when the fire began. 

"I was out with a group of friends, and we sat drinking. Everything was normal. About 30 people were in the shop, Thai and foreign tourists, when someone shouted, 'Fire!' But no one believed it. Then smoke started to pour in.

"After that, a light flashed, and a light tube fell on me. I tried to flee outside, but there was a jam at the door because everyone was running to escape. At that point, my clothes had caught fire. But I was lucky -- a foreign tourist put it out in time."

Kanyaporn said she suffered no injuries from the fire, but was hurt after being pushed down the stairs.

The caller who initially notified police also told them both fire exits were blocked by flames, adding that two transformers had exploded beside Tiger discotheque in front of the two fire exits, and city fire officials and Patong hospital should be contacted for help because flames were spreading rapidly.

At the scene, police, tourist police foreign volunteers, village police volunteers and tuk tuk drivers were busy clearing the street and helping the injured -- most of whom suffered from smoke inhalation -- to hospital.

A foreign tourist whose left arm was injured when he collided with another tourist trying to escape, fell and was trampled by others. He said Tiger was already closed when the fire began, with about 500 still inside because of the heavy rain.

"Suddenly the lights went off after the sound of two high voltage power transformers exploding beside the discotheque was heard," a local reporter explained. "All of Soi Bangla went dark. Then, after about five minutes, a current of electricity came down the wire and sparked a fire inside Tiger.

"Tourists panicked and fled, trying to save themselves. Some jumped off the second floor and were injured in the fall."

Kathu district police chief Pol Col Jipatr Pohchanapant called the incident "an accident" that resulted from the transformers' explosion, which he said was probably precipitated by heavy rain. The latter caused an electrical short that "quite quickly spread to Tiger disco and caused a fire, completely destroying it and leaving four dead -- two women and two men, one of which I'm sure is a foreigner."

Of the eleven injured, he said only two were kept in hospital, both in critical condition. One was a 40- or 42-year-old Thai woman, Nhudang Prangbangkana, and the other a French tourist, 30-year-old Benjamin Tallanotte. The latter suffered burns over 40% of his body.

Ten fire engines converged to douse the inferno, while flames poured forth along the entire length of the building, one of the largest on the street. The fire was reported under control around 4am.

At 6.30am, Phuket deputy governor Chaiwat Tepi and Kathu district police chief Pol Col Jipatr Pohchanapant and Forensic Police, specialising in evidence identification, from Patong station entered the burned-out premises, where they spent about an hour. Four bodies were found, "burnt beyond recognition -- such that identification of who they are is impossible".

The remains were transferred to Patong hospital to await further examination, and to see whether any distinguishing characteristics could be found.

Tiger Group chairman of the board Piya Isaramalay reportedly ordered Tamrongsak Boonyaraks, variously described as either lawyer to or managing director of Tiger Group, to make a statement accepting responsibility for what happened. He, too, told reporters that the fire had been "an accident".

"The fire erupted after the discotheque was closed but guests yet remained because it was raining heavily. The tourists were sitting there when suddenly a fire started and the power failed, causing a commotion. Each tried to escape, but only the front door could be used because the two fire exits on either side were covered in spreading flames and none could get out. That caused injuries.

 "I am sorry for those who died. The Tiger Group will provide help and care for those injured or dead."

Tamrongsak also reportedly told reporters: "The fire started about 3am. The disco had been closed since 2am, but a number of male and female tourists, Thai and foreign, were still sitting inside drinking. I expect the fire was caused by an electrical short. With regard to the dead and injured, the Tiger Group will care for all of them and carry out our responsibilities as specified by law."

He said he expected damages would amount to "several hundreds of millions of baht." whether the existing structure would be repaired, he said, would depend on results of an investigation "by the relevant agencies".

"We are ready to act in accord with its findings," he said.

Phuket provincial police chief Pol Maj Gen Chonasit Watanawarakul said two matters of investigation must take precedence: "What caused the fire, which preliminary investigation indicates erupted after transformers located nearby exploded and a blackout in Patong ensued. It also must be investigated whether renovations to the building or materials used played any part, and whether or not the structure can be used again."

The other pressing matter, he said, is to identify the dead: "Officials from Bangkok are coming down and will work to find any distinguishing characteristics on the corpses as soon as possible."

Provincial Forensic Police duty officer Kittisak Nhupeung said after the blaze: "The four bodies were too badly burnt to say whether they are male or female, or from what nationality. Scientific analysis of individual characteristics must be used to distinguish them, then await those who report relatives missing."

-Siang Tai