“It was too crowded. The people started pushing each other, and I found it hard to breathe. And then my friend tried to get me out, but he couldn’t get to me, so I told him to go without me. I pushed my friend to go, to survive on his own.”
Ban Sophy, 22, sat at a wooden desk in a school on the outskirts of Phnom Penh as he remembered the events of November 22 2010, the night when a nation’s celebrations came to an abrupt halt.
On the last evening of Phnom Penh’s three-day Bon Om Tuk, otherwise known as water festival, more than 300 people were killed on a swaying suspension bridge, most of them from suffocation and injuries sustained by being trampled during a tragic crowd crush.
One year on, the scars of the event are still fresh for many of those involved. Kouch Rinnarith, an 18-year-old construction worker, was in hospital for a week after injuring his leg in the crush. He eventually asked the doctor to discharge him early because he was “really scared being in the hospital while people from the stampede were still dying next to me”.
Ban Sophy also sustained an injury during the incident, and his ankle remains numb to this day. Both young men said they were planning to attend this year’s event but that their fellow villagers of Anlong Kong Thmey, to the southwest of Phnom Penh, had warned them against returning to the festival, which, it was announced will not include its biggest draw this year – the boat races.
“The people in my village said to me that I should not go because I was in the stampede last year and if I go… I will die,” said Ban Sophy.
Kouch Rinnarith, though, thinks the festival will be safer in the future. “Last year [the festivalgoers] thought that a crowded place was more fun but [now] they know that crowded places can be dangerous… they know what can happen,” he said.
The question of whether the festival will indeed be safer in years to come depends on a large number of factors, according to Paul Wertheimer, founder and CEO of Crowd Management Strategies, a consulting service that provides advice on crowd safety at concerts, festivals and other public assembly events.
Wertheimer has spent more than 1,000 hours in crowds of all types and sizes during four decades of studying crowd safety. “Not enough is being done to protect people in crowds from harm,” he said. “My worldwide research points to a failure of duty by event organisers, venue operators, private security and sometimes public safety agencies. In other words, the vast majority of crowd disasters we see in contemporary society are preventable.”
Estimates of just how many people flood Phnom Penh during water festival vary wildly from one million up to a third of the country’s 14 million inhabitants. Whatever the exact figure, the population of the city doubles at the very least. Wertheimer feels that such huge numbers can be effectively handled with the correct preparation.
“It is possible to manage crowds of this size – and demeanour – if, among other things, qualified professionals prepare the appropriate crowd-safety plans and management procedures,” he said. “It is also necessary that sufficient resources and trained personnel are in place to carry out these procedures.
“Additionally, other special public aids may be required. These include street signage, crowd managers, interpreters, security, volunteers to assist tourists, etc.”
Wertheimer does, however, have some sympathy with those entrusted with organising crowd management at an event of the water festival’s scale.
“Free events that allow unlimited crowds to gather can be extremely difficult to plan and manage because the resources needed to do so cannot be accurately determined in advance without knowing the crowd size and demographics,” he said.
Adding to the problems at last year’s event were the alleged use of water cannons by the police and rumours circulating among the crowd that the bridge was about to give way.
Kouch Rinnarith confirmed the feeling of panic that night. “I looked around and saw a lot of people falling [to the ground], I thought the bridge was going to collapse,” he said.
“The bridge was shaky and when it shook, people thought it was going to break so they tried to get away and that caused fear and panic,” added Ban Sophy.
Wertheimer, who has participated in the development and passage of safety legislation, standards and guidance in the United States, Australia, and alongside the governments of England and Denmark, gave a series of tips for people to use when crowd management is failing to protect the crowd.
Of the ten, key among them was not screaming needlessly – most people will not hear and you will tire quicker – and refraining from spreading rumours. Expecting people not to panic in such a situation is, of course, unrealistic and Wertheimer hopes for better communication from organisers at future festivals.
“Had they had an effective communication system, authorities may have been able to mitigate the rumours, such as the alleged claim that the bridge was collapsing,” he said.
The question of ensuring the safety of a crowd is fraught with variables and differing techniques. There is even a marked difference between crowd control and crowd management: two terms that are often used interchangeably.
The former involves the restriction or limitation of group behaviour, such as police ordering people to stand somewhere or move in a specific direction without informing them of the purpose or benefit.
Crowd management, on the other hand, involves systematic planning for, and supervision of, the orderly movement and assembly of people – a method that gives partial responsibility to the crowd for its own safety.
Wertheimer said the water festival should use some techniques from both approaches but place greater emphasis on crowd management.
“With such a large and diverse number of people to protect, the crowd must know what is expected of them, how they can assist [in] protecting their own safety, and how they can reach, enjoy and leave their destination safely. Ordering people in crowds simply to obey unexplained orders does not always work effectively.”
Stringent planning before the event and ongoing communication during it are key to a safe, successful water festival. The government investigation into last year’s tragedy concluded that mistakes had been made. Prime Minister Hun Sen said at the time: “Our biggest mistake is that we wrongly evaluated the situation… It was unexpected, and we were careless and did not prepare any protection measures in advance.”
Wertheimer contrasted the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement with statements made by the Governor of Indiana in the US and by the German government following deadly crowd tragedies that occurred on their watch – the collapse of a stage at the Indiana State Fair in August this year, and a crowd crush at Germany’s Love Parade in July 2010 respectively. Neither acknowledged their governments’ possible failings.
“Hun Sen deserves praise for speaking frankly about the government’s liability for the tragedy,” said Wertheimer. “But, accepting blame, or partial blame, for a disaster is not the end, but the first step toward preventing a recurrence. The legacy of a tragedy should be lessons learned and changes made.”