A police officer stands outside the Mountain B nightclub where 18 people were killed when a fire broke out on Aug 4. (Photo: Reuters)
By now, many of us may have lost interest in the deadly fire at the Mountain B pub in Sattahip district of Chon Buri province because they are occupied with other more pressing issues such as inflation.
For most of us, the victims are just statistics except for their loved ones who are still in grief or who may be praying to the Almighty to spare the life of those critically injured.
But among the 18 deaths so far, there is one unsung hero who risked his life to rescue patrons from the burning pub. As a consequence of his daring act, he suffered severe burns and succumbed to his injuries on Thursday at Siriraj hospital, five days after hospitalisation.
The hero was a naval pilot, Palitdet Soomngern, commander of the air fleet, the second air wing of the Royal Thai Navy based in Sattahip district. He was among over 100 patrons inside the pub when the fire broke out from a suspected electrical short circuit.
Instead of fleeing, the naval officer helped pull a few patrons out to safety. One was a Vietnamese citizen, Dinh Kim Le, who suffered severe burns but is still alive on a ventilator at a state hospital.
Prior to his death on Thursday, his relatives had pleaded with the public for Type B blood donations needed for his operation. The plea was warmly received, with people offering to donate blood. But sadly, the operation could not save his life.
As for Dinh Kim Le, doctors at Somdet Si Racha hospital said her condition is improving. They expect to be able to remove her from the ventilator soon.
That is the good news. The bad news is that she still owes Bangkok Pattaya hospital more than 400,000 in medical bills.
Dinh was rushed to a hospital in Sattahip. Her Thai friend, Apinya Mongkolsin, said there were already many fire victims in the emergency ward at the time and doctors and nurses were busy taking care of other patients.
While Dinh was crying in great pain, Apinya asked for permission from a doctor to have her sent to Bangkok Pattaya hospital. She paid 50,000 baht as a down payment for treatment at the hospital.
But after a few days there, the medical bill has increased to more than 600,000 baht which she cannot afford to pay. After her brother paid 100,000 baht, the hospital agreed to allow the patient to be transferred to Somdet Si Racha, a state hospital.
The victim’s sister in Vietnam also appealed to donors there, but has managed to raise just 70,000 baht.
Let’s turn to another aspect of the story: the knee-jerk reactions from the police as well as the Provincial Administration Department (PAD).
The immediate transfer of the Sattahip district chief officer by the PAD and the transfer of a handful of senior police from Phlu Ta Luang police station are just a replay of the same old script that most of us no longer take seriously.
Likewise, the order that pubs across the country be checked to find out whether they were illegally modified or have operating licences was just a cosmetic measure to give a feel-good impression that the powers-that-be are, this time, earnest in getting tough with illegal pubs.
We have lost count of how many times officials go through such theatrical charades. It is an open secret that many pubs are operating without a licence, many have been illegally modified and lack safety measures such as fire exits. In the Mountain B case, the fire exits was locked.
The Sattahip district chief officer and senior police at Phlu Ta Luang station claimed they were unaware that Mountain B was a pub, and thought it was just a restaurant selling liquor.
All turned a blind eye for the single reason that many of us know all too well. Money talks and money can bend even the strongest steel.
Corruption is deeply entrenched in the government bureaucracy from the top down; not even temples and monks are untouched.
A clear example was the “Ngern Torn” scandal some years ago which implicated senior officials of the National Office of Buddhism and senior monks at temples in Bangkok and upcountry.
The scandal mostly concerned the budget for temple renovation projects which must be screened by the National Office of Buddhism.
When the budget was approved by the government to be distributed to temples, corrupt officials in the office demanded a big chunk of the money to be returned to their own bank accounts. This led to overpriced projects or fake projects being submitted to the office with the collusion of corrupt monks.
We all know about police corruption. But there are other officials who are just as corrupt such as those responsible for building inspections, land officials, land officials and many more.
Building modifications without a permit rarely miss the radar of inspectors in Bangkok because they have garbage collectors as their paid informers.
So the chance of the inspectors’ boss, the district chief officer, not knowing about the illegal modifications at the pub are at best a tall story. Nor does the police excuse of not knowing when a pub is operating beyond its permissible operating hours sound convincing.
Corruption is an integral part of the Thai bureaucratic system. And many of us appear to accept it as a fait accompli.
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.