January 2, 2009 in Nation/World

Police probe Thai nightclub fire

Witnesses report seeing fireworks
Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

An onlooker watches from behind a cordon at Santika nightclub today in Bangkok, Thailand.
(Full-size photo)

BANGKOK, Thailand – Grieving families prayed for the spirits of their loved ones today while police probed for the cause of a fire that ravaged a jammed Bangkok nightclub, killing about 60 New Year’s Eve partygoers.

Police Maj. Gen. Jongrak Jutanont said investigators were focusing on whether the blaze was sparked by a countdown fireworks display organized by the club owners or by firecrackers brought in by guests.

The fire broke out shortly after the midnight countdown and raced through the two-story club, trapping a number as they tried to flee through one main door.

No charges related to the fire have yet been filed, but the owner, Thai-Chinese businessman Wisuth Setsawat, would be initially charged with allowing underage customers into the Santika Club, Jongrak said. A 17-year-old high school student was found among the dead, he said.

On Friday, families of victims gathered at the gutted, charred club to take part in Buddhist prayers, beseeching the spirits of the dead to make their way back home.

The Phranakorn Center, an official agency dealing with accidents in Bangkok, said Thursday that at least 61 people died and that 35 foreigners were among the injured. The Narenthorn Emergency Center, which was coordinating relief efforts, said more than 200 had been injured.

But the state-owned Radio Thailand gave the death toll Friday at 58 while some Thai media said 59 had perished.

Jongrak said that 21 bodies, burned beyond recognition, have yet to be identified.

The party at the wildly popular, classy Santika was billed as both a New Year’s blowout and a last-night celebration of the nightclub before it moved to a new location. “Goodbye Santika,” the promotion poster read.

“Everybody was pushing against each other trying to get out to the front door as quickly as possible,” said Sompong Tritaweelap, who lives in an apartment behind the nightclub. “I saw people, particularly young girls, being pushed away and crushed underneath as others were stomping on them trying to get out.”

Sompong said the fire spread through the entire building within 10 minutes.

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