POIPET: Rescuers finished searching the charred ruins of a Cambodian hotel and casino complex on Friday after the death toll from a fire that forced people to jump from windows rose to 26.
Hundreds of people are believed to have been inside the Grand Diamond City venue, located in the northwestern town of Poipet within sight of the Thai border, when the blaze broke out late on Wednesday night.
"The death toll is 26, including 21 Thai nationals," said Sek Sokhom, director of the information department for the province of Banteay Meanchey. Some of the bodies recovered were found in stairways, he said.
Sek Sokhom said the search was over because "rescuers have reached all parts that we thought might have victims."
Grieving families said they were struggling to comprehend the scale of the disaster. One mother said she was unable to eat because she was so overwhelmed by the loss of her son.
Photos and video from the scene showed people huddling on windowsills to escape the flames, with one rescuer said he saw people desperately jumping from the roof as the blaze inched closer.
Hundreds of Cambodian soldiers and police officers, along with volunteers from Thailand, worked through the day, as smoke still rose from the building, before calling off the search as night fell.
The search had been slowed by fears the building was unsafe, a volunteer from Thai rescue group the Poh Teck Tung Foundation describing it as unstable.
Many of the injured have been taken to Thailand for treatment. Thai officials said more than 50 had been hospitalised, 13 of them in critical condition.
Grieving mother Keerati Keawwat said her 23-year-old son was in the building when the fire broke out. "He got stuck inside and could not get out," the 55-year-old said from a makeshift information centre.
"I can't eat, and only slept for one hour," she said. "I'm too overwhelmed."
'Neung', a 42-year-old casino worker who gave only his nickname, said he was sleeping in the complex but managed to make it out, although his father was not so lucky.
He said his father, who was gambling in the casino, managed to help two women reach safety.
"But in helping them, he used a lot of energy and was choked by the smoke," he said.
His father was then trapped in a room with others but was still able to call until roughly 3 am.
"I then lost connection with my dad, and lost hope," he said. "Now, I only want to have his body."
The complex is one of many in Poipet, a border town popular with Thais who face strict restrictions on gambling within their country.
Tuk-tuk driver Thitinun Thongging said that the terrifying fire was indicative of the loose safety standards in Poipet.
"I am worried about everything there. It's out of control," said the 48-year-old, who lives on the Thai side.
Thailand's foreign ministry said it was working closely with Cambodian authorities to find and identify Thais involved in the incident and was sending additional equipment, consular officers, and a police attaché to Poipet.
Gambling by Cambodians is also illegal but numerous casino-filled hotspots have flourished along the borders with Thailand and Vietnam.
A Grand Diamond City worker, who asked not to be identified because it might affect her job, said she was working on the third floor of the 17-floor hotel wing when the blaze started. "At first, it was not a huge fire," she said, but she and a co-worker were soon forced to flee outside. "It got huge rapidly," she said, still shocked by the death and destruction. - AFP