By SETH MYDANS
The New York Times
BANGKOK — More than 300 people were killed and hundreds more were injured in a stampede at an annual water festival in Cambodia that the prime minister on Tuesday called the nation’s worst tragedy since the murderous Khmer Rouge regime more than three decades ago.
Witnesses in Phnom Penh, the capital, said the stampede began Monday night when people panicked in a dense crowd on a small island close to the shore of the Bassac River.
Hundreds of people tried to escape over a short suspension bridge. Many died of suffocation or were crushed underfoot or were electrocuted by loose wires. Many drowned when they leaped from the suspension bridge into the water.
The night was filled with the constant sound of sirens and, at the scene and in the hospital, with the wailing of people discovering dead friends or relatives.
“This is the biggest tragedy in more than 31 years since the Pol Pot regime,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said in one of several television announcements through the night, referring to the mass killings of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.
Millions of people pour into the capital each year and line the river’s shores and islands in densely packed crowds for a boat race that is the climax of the water festival. The last boat race ended early Monday evening, the final night of the holiday, and a concert was being held on the island, called Diamond Island, a long spit of land close to the royal palace on the shore.
There was no confirmation of the cause of the stampede, but Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said it began when what he said were one million people became “scared of something.”
The police and rescuers had to fight their way through crowds, sometimes beating people with their belts to get through, according to reports from the scene.
Video from the site showed scenes of horror with bodies lying here and there and frantic rescuers rushing among them.
People staggered from the scene either alone or supported on both sides by rescuers. Some sat on the ground, holding their hands to their chests and breathing with difficulty.
Other people carried bodies, both the dead and the badly injured, by their arms and legs; they knelt on the ground fanning those who were still alive or trying to perform CPR; they loaded the dead and badly injured onto flatbed trucks or the backs of motorcycles and packed them into ambulances.
People searched, weeping, through the corridors of the hospital, where bodies lay on the floor wrapped in woven mats or under sarongs. Hospital workers threw white sheets over groups of bodies on the floor. White coated hospital personnel hurried through rooms jammed with cots.
The brightly lit suspension bridge with its delicate fretwork was carpeted with the shoes and bits of clothes of those who had been crushed or fled.