Dozens Dead in Nightclub Fire

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) - A fire swept through a high-class
nightclub jammed with several hundred New Year's revelers early
Thursday, killing at least 59 people and injuring more than 200,
officials said.
A number of foreigners were among the casualties from the blaze
that erupted shortly after midnight at the Santika Club in an
entertainment district of Bangkok.
Victims died from burns, smoke inhalation and injuries during
the stampede to escape from the club, which had only one door for
the public, police Maj. Gen. Chokchai Deeprasertwit said.
Firefighters said a door at the rear was known only to the staff,
while an Associated Press reporter saw a third door at one side of
the building.
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 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.
The Narenthorn Emergency Center, which was coordinating relief
efforts, said 59 people died, with eight of the bodies burned
beyond recognition, and another 203 were injured. It was unclear
how many foreigners were among the casualties.
Police Lt. Gen. Jongrak Jutanont was quoted by the Web site of
The Nation newspaper as saying most of those killed were
foreigners, and included tourists from Austria, Japan and Nepal.
Earlier, he told reporters that among the injured were nationals of
Australia, Nepal, Japan and the Netherlands.
An Associated Press photographer saw the bodies of at least 10
foreigners from the fire at the police morgue but authorities did
not provide immediate identification and some rescue workers said
that they saw mainly Asians among the dead.
Chokchai said that the fire may have been caused by firecrackers
brought into the Santika Club by guests or sparks flying from a New
Year's countdown display on the nightclub stage.
The Web site of The Nation newspaper quoted one partygoer,
Somchai Frendi, as saying the blaze was caused by the countdown
fireworks that ignited the second floor ceiling, which was made
largely of soundproofing material.
Jongrak said the initial investigation found that the club's
safety system was "sub-standard" but did not elaborate.
The club was packed with about 1,000 celebrants, according to
police officers who declined to be named because they were not
authorized to speak to the press.
The rescue workers said most of the bodies were found in a pit
area surrounding the stage. The club attracts a well-heeled crowd
of Thais and foreigners. The corpses, placed in white body bags,
were laid out in rows in the parking lot in front of the club,
which was strewn with shoes of the victims, water bottles, parking
stickers and other debris.
The emergency workers said the rescue operation was delayed
because of heavy New Year's traffic in the Ekamai entertainment
district and the large number of cars parked at the club.
Firefighter Watcharapong Sri-saard said that in addition to a
lack of exits, a number of staircases inside the club as well as
bars across the second-floor windows made escape difficult.
An AP reporter who peered inside the still burning building said
everything in sight had been burned.
"Bodies, some of them probably alive, were falling off the
stretchers as the rescue workers rushed them away. The flames were
glowing through the broken glass windows. A part of the building
had already collapsed," said Andrew Jones of England, who arrived
at the scene shortly after the fire erupted.
One local Web site about the entertainment scene in Bangkok
described the club as attracting "an affluent Thai student crowd,
with Euro models and Westerners also popping in" with a
"whisky-sipping crowd all focused on a large stage."
Another site says that the high ceiling and a cross in the main
room makes one feel "like walking into a church."
Just after dawn, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva visited the
still-smoldering club but did not talk to reporters.
Safety regulations are infrequently monitored and often loosely
enforced in Bangkok. Thailand, for example, passed a law in 1994
requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, but bareheaded riders with
policemen blithely looking on are a common sight on Bangkok's
streets today.

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