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Cause sought in deadly Thailand fire

Accounts vary in club inferno that killed 61

Firefighters worked at a nightclub in Bangkok where a blaze ignited with a thousand New Year's revelers jammed inside early yesterday. At least 61 people were killed and more than 200 injured when they tried to flee the inferno. Firefighters worked at a nightclub in Bangkok where a blaze ignited with a thousand New Year's revelers jammed inside early yesterday. At least 61 people were killed and more than 200 injured when they tried to flee the inferno. (apichart weerawong/Associated Press)
By Denis D. Gray
Associated Press / January 2, 2009
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BANGKOK - It was billed as a New Year's Eve blowout and a final-night celebration of the wildly popular, classy nightclub before it moved to a new location. "Goodbye Santika," the promotion poster read.

Before the revelry was over, at least 61 people were dead and more than 200 injured when they tried to flee what swiftly became a charred, gutted ruin in a glitzy Bangkok entertainment area.

Several witnesses said a fireworks display during the New Year's countdown ignited the blaze. But one foreigner said he saw no pyrotechnics at the club and a video shot by a guest showed many inside the club were waving sparklers shortly before the fire erupted.

Among the casualties were a Singaporean who died and at least 35 foreigners who were injured, including citizens of Australia, Belgium, Britain, France, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States, according to officials and reporters.

A full accounting was not expected for about a week because nearly 30 of the victims were charred beyond recognition.

A senior Bangkok official, Pongsak Kasemsan, ordered a preliminary investigation report to be completed within three days and vowed to crack down on unsafe entertainment venues, some of which have been described by local residents as death traps.

"Everybody was pushing against each other trying to get out to the front door as quickly as possible. I saw people, particularly young girls, being pushed away and crushed underneath as others were stomping on them trying to get out," said Sompong Tritaweelap, who lives in an apartment behind the nightclub.

Victims died from burns, smoke inhalation, and injuries during the stampede.

Video footage of the disaster showed bloodied, bruised, and burned victims being dragged out of the burning two-story club or managing to run through the door or out shattered windows. The video - provided to AP Television News by rescue workers - showed flames racing through the entire building even as the rescue operation was going on.

Sompong said the fire spread through the entire building within 10 minutes.

"People were screaming for help from every window. It was a terrible sight. Their hair and clothes were on fire but there was nothing they could do as the fire engulfed them," he said.

The Santika Club, popular with young, affluent Thais as well as tourists and expatriates, was celebrating not only the New Year but also the last night at its location in the Ekamai entertainment district. The owner was planning to move to a new location because the lease on the property could not be extended.

The website of The Nation newspaper quoted one partygoer, Somchai Frendi, as saying the blaze was caused when countdown fireworks ignited the second floor ceiling, which was covered with soundproofing material.

But Steven Hall, 35, from Cardiff Wales in Britain, said he saw no fireworks on the stage.

"As far as I could see, the fire looked like it started at the ceiling level," Hall said in a hospital interview. "The first thing I remember was seeing people on the stage and seeing flames coming out from along the ceiling level above the stage and seeing embers come down and looking at the faces of people on the stage looking horrified."

"There was a band and a DJ - I could not see any pyrotechnics," he said.

Police Lieutenant General Jongrak Jutanont said an initial investigation found the club's safety system was "substandard" but did not elaborate.

The club was packed with about 1,000 celebrants, police officers at the scene said. Rescue workers said most of the bodies were found in a pit area surrounding the stage.

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