POIPET, Banteay Meanchey — Seng Hoang, 31, says no one at Poipet’s Grand Diamond City Casino alerted her to a fire spreading downstairs.
Instead it was Hoang’s mother, seeing ambulances and fire trucks in the city around midnight headed toward the casino, who tried to reach her.
Authorities have estimated that the fire started around 11:30 p.m., possibly half an hour or more before Hoang was made aware of it — by someone from outside.
Several alarming safety hazards have been brought to light by last week’s fire — electronic access doors allegedly locking without power, a lack of sprinklers or escape routes — but Hoang raised an even more basic concern: no alarm system, even staff simply alerting each other and guests that there was a fire in the building.
Cambodian authorities say no locals have been found dead in last week’s huge Poipet casino fire and all those injured have been discharged. But families are still missing loved ones while Hoang, a cleaner, was still recovering Saturday in hospital after getting trapped in the inferno.
Hoang was asleep at the casino’s fifth floor when fire broke out downstairs. For the next three hours, she and a small group of workers frantically searched for a way out.
Hoang recalled from her hospital bed on Saturday that after her mother called, she went out of her room and saw smoke coming out of the elevator shaft. She joined a small group of workers trying to make their way downstairs.
“There was smoke from the lower floors and we couldn’t see anything,” she said. All the workers had their phones’ flashlights turned on to try to see ahead, and made their way into a room on the fourth floor. The group was stuck there for two hours.
“We tried two times to find a way out of the room, but we couldn’t make it and we returned back,” she said. The fire was visibly spreading outside the window, and eventually the group made a decision to jump.
At the last second, however, Hoang nearly fainted from the smoke, and two Thai workers dragged her up to the seventh floor, where around 30 people were trapped. “I didn’t know them but they helped me,” she said. “I would have died down there if not for their help.”
On the seventh floor, Hoang called her mother and husband, thinking there was no hope. “Everyone was crying and praying,” she said.
Worse, she could see company equipment being removed from the building.
“First they carried their stuff and they didn’t carry the people,” Hoang said. “We had to wait on the seventh floor for so long.”
Eventually, about three hours after the fire started, rescuers brought Hoang down in a carriage attached to a rope. She lost consciousness on the way to the hospital from smoke inhalation.
Outside an apartment building in Poipet city, Heng Lai Sean, who worked 10 years at Grand Diamond City, said she had good employers, but acknowledged there was no fire alarm system. She knows this from previous fires — one several years ago, and another in early 2021.
Her colleague, who declined to give her name saying she was looking for new work in the industry, said she was on the ground-floor gaming area when the fire started. A security camera in one corner of the floor started smoking, and soon there were flames spreading across the ceiling. Guards tried to use a fire extinguisher on it, but the flames were too high up, the worker said.
“It kept spreading,” she said. “It burned across the ceiling and we immediately ran out. In a moment it was everywhere.”
She was too scared to think about what was happening upstairs, she added. “Everyone needed to save themselves,” she said. “We were almost running all over each other.”
Kong Chea, 48, arrived at his bus company near the border around 4 a.m. Thursday to find the casino engulfed in flames. He said it was hard to understand why the fire was allowed to spread across a bridge to buildings on both sides of the road.
“Many people are talking like I am, but only in secret,” he said.
On Saturday morning, authorities held a press conference about bringing an end to their 39-hour rescue efforts. National Disaster Management Committee head Kun Kim acknowledged that the buildings were “disorderly,” and they would need to be improved in the future.
“The Ministry of Land Management and department of land management need to discuss when they rebuild to not allow the construction of such a building, and they must pay attention to fire and water and all kinds of things,” Kim said, adding that provincial authorities would consider legal action against the company.
Kim said rescuers had finished searching all rooms, and 26 people died in total, with seven unidentified bodies as of Saturday. Provincial governor Um Reatrey said that as far as he was aware, all those who were taken to hospital had been discharged.
But Hoang was still at the Poipet city referral hospital later that day. In addition to losing consciousness while being transported away from the fire by ambulance, her arm was injured when she fell trying to find a way to escape.
“They use their hands to remove [the effects of] smoke from my throat and make me vomit to feel better,” Hoang said.
She said that she had only worked for six months at the casino, cleaning rooms used for “online” work that she didn’t understand.
“My floor, the fifth floor, was for online, and I don’t know about it and just know that they do it on the computer and reply and talk with each other. … I don’t know how they play it. We just do our work.”
The were electronic doors with fingerprint scanners to restrict access around the floor, she added.
In many cases, “online” work has involved illegal online gambling or global scam operations rife with the human trafficking of foreign workers barred from leaving the premises.
For Hoang, it was hard to get over the fact that no one notified the workers that there was a fire. Maybe the company thought they could put out the fire without anyone knowing, she said.
“I can’t sleep because I keep thinking: Why didn’t they tell us?” she said. “Why didn’t they tell the upper floors? … I still don’t understand this. I would be OK if they alerted us but they didn’t. We learned by ourselves after midnight. If they had told us at 11 p.m. some of us could have found a way out.”