18 dead in Cambodia building collapse

Cambodian rescue workers search for victims in the debris a day after an under-construction building collapsed in Sihanoukville on 23 June, 2019. (Sun Rethy Kun / AFP Photo)

Victims of a Cambodia building collapse were buried alive as they slept, a survivor said Sunday, as the death toll at the Chinese-owned site rose to 18 and hopes faded for finding more survivors. 

Tearful onlookers – among them relatives of the missing – waited into Sunday evening as diggers picked through the rubble of the seven-storey building, which was under construction at the time of the accident.

The building came down before dawn on Saturday while workers slept.

"I'm so lucky to be alive," survivor Phat Sophal said.

"There was a loud bang... my floor trembled, suddenly the building went down. I was crushed by debris from my waist down," he said. 

"My nephew and brother-in-law were also sleeping near me. Everyone was screaming and crying for help. A bit later I stopped hearing them. 

"I don't think they have survived."

A soldier at the scene said they had heard screams for help, but "today we didn't hear any sounds".

"If you go onto the pile of debris, you can smell the decomposing bodies," he said, requesting anonymity, and speculating the searing temperatures would be hard to survive.

Around 70 workers were sleeping on the second, third and fourth floors of the building, the survivor said, adding Chinese electricians were using the upper floors.

The former fishing village of Sihanoukville has seen a Chinese construction boom buoyed by tourists to its dozens of casinos in recent years, with questions raised about the speed of development in a nation notorious for lax safety standards. 

Three Chinese nationals and a Cambodian landowner have been held for questioning over the building collapse, which Prime Minister Hun Sen blamed on "carelessness" by the construction company. 

Bodies trapped

Local authorities on Sunday raised the death toll to 18 – including at least three women – with 24 injured. 

Some of the scores of rescuers wore hard hats and oxygen tanks and used pneumatic drills to chip through concrete blocks, while diggers cleared gnarled metal.

One person was pulled alive from the rubble late Saturday – the last survivor to be extracted as of Sunday afternoon.   

"We fear more bodies are trapped in the debris because the search has not reached the bottom of the building yet," a provincial official said, requesting anonymity.

It is not clear how many people were at the site at the time of the collapse. 

There are an estimated 200,000 construction workers in Cambodia – about 11 percent of the informal work sector – most who are unskilled, paid day wages and are not protected by union rules, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Cambodia has not kept pace with the construction boom "to ensure safety and health of the sector’s workforce", the ILO has said.

The southwestern town of Sihanoukville is awash with Chinese cash that has sparked a building frenzy to cater to mainland tourists flooding the town's city's casinos, beaches and glitzy hotels. 

Beijing is pouring investment into Cambodia as part of its behemoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a sweeping trillion-dollar infrastructure programme across Asia, Africa and Europe. 

Around US$1 billion was invested in the Preah Sihanouk province between 2016 and 2018 alone, and there are around 50 Chinese-owned casinos and dozens of hotel complexes under construction in Sihanoukville. – AFP