A kitchen fire raced through a 17-story luxury hotel in this beach resort Friday, killing at least 81 people as guests found themselves trapped behind locked emergency exits. An American girl clutching her teddy bear was among those airlifted to safety.
Crowds on the sidewalk watched in horror as people screamed for help and waved towels from windows on the upper floors. One man jumped to his death from the 11th floor.
Police said 64 people were injured and more bodies may be inside the 450-room Royal Jomtien Hotel in Pattaya, a city 70 miles south of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand.
Many of the dead were found near emergency exits that had been chained shut to prevent guests from skipping out without paying. The hotel had no sprinklers.
The fire began about 9 a.m. when a gas oven exploded in a first-floor coffee shop, immediately killing eight kitchen workers.
Flames spread to other floors, spewing clouds of black smoke as the families of the conference members and other guests tried to escape. Many suffocated in hallways or internal fire escapes.
Among those trapped on the top floors was an American woman, Rochelle Stein-Sami, and her daughter. A rescue helicopter landed on the roof, then let down a harness, which the daughter lunged at several times before grabbing.
With heavy winds whipping her about, the girl, clutching her teddy bear, was lifted through the thick smoke to safety. Stein-Sami followed.
Later, in an television interview, the girl, who appeared to be about 10, said she wasn’t scared.
“I wanted my mother to be safe. That was what I was worried about,” she said. “It wasn’t that scary. On the way up I bumped my head, but I was OK.”
The television didn’t give the girl’s first name or her hometown.
Police Maj. Gen. Kongbej Choosri criticized the lack of external fire exits, saying the internal escape stairs were deathtraps. Pattaya’s fire equipment could not reach flames above the fourth floor, Kongbej said.
Rescue workers used floodlights to search for more victims. Intense heat prevented them from staying in the building longer than 30 minutes. Many collapsed near the hotel swimming pool on emerging, gasping for air.