Huge fire in Poipet hotel-casino

Huge fire in Poipet hotel-casino

Thai employees among dead and injured at property owned by fugitive Thai politician Vatana Asavahame

Fire engulfs the Grand Diamond City hotel-casino in Poipet, Cambodia. (Photo: Na Tua Koo Phai Aran)
Fire engulfs the Grand Diamond City hotel-casino in Poipet, Cambodia. (Photo: Na Tua Koo Phai Aran)

At least 19 people have been reported killed and up to 30 were still missing on Thursday night after a fire broke out at a Cambodian casino-hotel complex in the border town of Poipet.

“There are 19 dead so far as we see bodies and bones,” said Sek Sokhom, director of the Banteay Meanchey provincial information department. He warned the figure “could be higher” because rescuers have not yet reached parts of the complex.

The blaze at the Grand Diamond City complex started around 11.30pm Wednesday and continued raging on Thursday afternoon, leaving the 17-storey building on the verge of collapse, he said.

About 400 people were in the casino hotel when the fire broke out. Up to 30 remained missing and 60 were injured, he said. Some hotel guests who were unable to escape rooms with electronic door locks that no longer worked.

The casino just across the border from Aranyaprathet in Thailand is owned by Vatana Asavahame, 86, a former cabinet minister who fled the country in 2008 before being convicted in connection with the Klong Dan wastewater treatment scandal, one of the biggest corruption cases in the country’s history.

The fire was caused by an electrical short, said Sek Sokhom.

“The casinos consumed a lot of electricity for New Year’s preparation,” he said. “We have a photo showing a wire burning in a gambling room.”

A Thai rescue volunteer  with the Ruamkatanyu Foundation, who wished to remain anonymous, said his team arrived at around 2am and saw people jumping from the building

“I witnessed people running out of the building to escape from the smoke,” he said. Others crowded onto a rooftop to avoid the flames.

“Then we saw some people jumping down,” the volunteer said.

Video showed the building consumed by flames, with firefighters struggling to contain the blaze and rescuers attempting to pluck people from a burning ledge.

In one clip, an unidentified man is seen sitting on a window ledge as smoke billows out from behind him. In another, a group of people huddle on a ledge as flames draw near.

Dozens of people, many of them Thai employees and tourists, were reported trapped both inside and on the rooftop of the 17-storey complex, which included casinos on its first three floors and more than 100 luxury hotel rooms.

Fire crews and helicopters from Thailand were deployed to help fight the blaze and evacuate the premises.

Thai authorities in neighbouring Sa Kaeo province said more than 50 victims had been admitted to hospitals there. Local public health official Prapas Pookduang told AFP that 13 of them were “on life support”.

Sa Kaeo governor Parinya Phothisat said roughly another 60 people caught up in the fire had already been checked and cleared by local hospitals.

He said Thai hospitals had treated 79 Thai nationals, 30 Cambodians and eight Indonesians. (continues below)

People huddle desperately on a ledge as fierce flames surround them, at the Grand Diamond City hotel-casino in Poipet. (Photo: AFP)

The Ruamkatanyu Foundation volunteer said the blaze started on the first floor but spread quickly along carpets, leaping up through the multi-storey building.

Naphat Klonkliang, an officer with the foundation, told AFP they had retrieved two bodies.

“The rescue team were struggling in the beginning and the main reason was the smoke,” the officer said.

Around 100 rescuers swarmed the complex throughout the day, some donning heavy protective gear to search the building for survivors.

Rescue crews prepared to stop for the night as evening fell.

“Working under these conditions is dangerous,” said Satit Surungsit, 53, from the Thai Poh Teck Tung Foundation. (continues below)

Fugitive politician Vatana Asavahame owns the fire-ravaged Grand Diamond City Hotel and Casino in Poipet, Cambodia. He fled Thailand in 2008 after the Supreme Court found him guilty of corruption. Now 86, he is believed to be dividing his time between Poipet and Macau. (File photo: Bangkok Post)

Vatana connection

Vatana Asavahame, 86, is the owner of the Grand Diamond City Hotel and Casino, which covers a total area of 170 rai (67.2 acres), and another casino called Poipet Resort, which covers 21 rai (8.3 acres), with operating licences valid for a lifetime.

In August last year, the veteran politician offered to sell both casinos in Poipet for a combined price of 12 billion baht, saying the business had been facing a downturn, according to Thai media.

Vatana was sentenced by the Supreme Court in 2008 for abuse of power in a case linked to the Klong Dan wastewater treatment scandal. He fled before the ruling was handed down and was reportedly in hiding in Cambodia.

Serial petitioner Srisuwan Janya, acting as Vatana’s lawyer, tried unsuccessfully in 2020 to put forward new evidence that he said could prompt the Justice Ministry to reopen the case.

Vatana served as MP for Samut Prakan 11 times and as leader of the Mahachon Party. His former daughter-in-law Nantida Kaewbuasai, a popular songstress, is currently the chairwoman of the Samut Prakan Provincial Administration.

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