Water Festival Tragedy 2007

The Associated Press Sunday, November 25, 2007; 4:13 AM

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The bodies of five Singaporean men who went missing when their boat capsized after a holiday race were pulled out of a Cambodian river Sunday, officials said. A sixth body, that of a Cambodian rower, was also found. The Singaporeans’ bodies were spotted floating downstream from the accident site in the Tonle Sap river in the capital, Phnom Penh, said police officer Mom Sitha, a member of the 150-strong search party. “The bodies of the five missing have all been discovered,” Mom Sitha said.

Grieving relatives gathered Sunday at Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital, where the bodies were being brought for autopsy.

Mom Sitha said the bodies were located at four different sites, from less than a mile to 2.5 miles south of where the five disappeared after their dragon boat capsized Friday. There had been 22 Singaporeans on the boat, which had just completed the 1,640-yard course in the traditional Cambodian boat race festival.

The Cambodian rower drowned after his boat capsized Friday, said Nhim Vanda, vice president of the National Committee for Disaster Management. He did not elaborate.

Although there were no deaths last year, there have been a handful of fatalities previously associated with the race, which attracts a huge crowd of onlookers. Chea Koeun, a deputy director of the national committee that organizes the festival, said this year’s number of deaths was the highest ever and included foreigners for the first time. The accident occurred as the Singaporeans decided to continue rowing from the finish line to shore, according to Cambodian officials.

Nhim Vanda said the festival organizers had offered to tow to shore all the boats of foreign competitors after they completed the race. But he said the Singaporeans declined the offer, saying there was “no need because we still had the strength to row.”
When their boat approached a pontoon serving as a pier, it hit swirling water and overturned, Nhim Vanda said. Police boats were able to rescue only 17 of them at the scene.

Singapore’s navy sent a team of eight to assist Cambodian authorities in the search.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen sent a message to his Singaporean counterpart, Lee Hsien Loong, “conveying his shock and sadness” over the accident, Singapore’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday.

The Singaporeans were among eight teams from neighboring Southeast Asian countries that participated in the annual event. The accident occurred on the first of three days of racing.
Some 440 colorful dragon boats, mainly from across Cambodia, were racing to celebrate Cambodia’s annual water festival, which marks the start of the rice harvesting season and the time of the year when the Tonle Sap river reverses its flow from north to south.

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