Bangkok club fire kills at least 59

Over 200 others injured fleeing blaze

Rescuers and police officers placed the victims' bodies in rows in the parking lot in front of the nightclub today. Other bodies are believed to still be in the club, which was packed with about 1,000 celebrants, according to police officers. Rescuers and police officers placed the victims' bodies in rows in the parking lot in front of the nightclub today. Other bodies are believed to still be in the club, which was packed with about 1,000 celebrants, according to police officers. (Pairoj/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Denis D. Gray
Associated Press / January 1, 2009
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BANGKOK - A fire swept through a high-class nightclub jammed with several hundred New Year's revelers early today, killing at least 59 people and injuring about 130, officials said.

A number of foreigners were among the casualties from the blaze, which erupted shortly after midnight at the Santika Club in Bangkok's entertainment district.

Victims died from burns, smoke inhalation, and injuries during the stampede to escape from the club, which had only one door for the public, said Police Major General Chokchai Deeprasertwit said. Firefighters said a door at the rear was known only to the staff.

Video footage of the disaster showed bloodied, bruised, and burned victims being dragged out of the burning club or escaping through the door or shattered windows. The video showed flames racing through the entire building even as the rescue operation was going on.

Police General Jongrak Jutanont put the death toll at 59, which included an undetermined number of foreigners. He said that among the injured were nationals of Australia, Nepal, Japan, and the Netherlands. They were not immediately identified.

Most of the victims were confirmed dead at the club. About 130 others were injured.

Rescuers said they believed other bodies were still inside the burned out building, which has two stories and a basement.

Chokchai said the fire might have been caused by firecrackers brought into the Santika Club by guests or sparks flying from a New Year's countdown display on the nightclub stage.

The club was packed with about 1,000 celebrants, according to police officers who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Most of the bodies were found in the basement of the club, which attracts a prosperous crowd of Thais and foreigners, rescuers said. The corpses, placed in white body bags, were laid out in rows in the parking lot in front of the club.

The emergency workers said the rescue operation was delayed because of heavy New Year's traffic in the Ekamai entertainment district and the large number of cars parked at the club.

Firefighter Watcharapong Sri-saard said that in addition to a lack of exits, a number of staircases inside the club as well as bars across the second-floor windows made escape difficult.

Inside the still burning building, everything in sight appeared to have been burned.

One local website about the entertainment scene in Bangkok described the club as attracting "an affluent Thai student crowd, with Euro models and Westerners also popping in."

Another site said the high ceiling and a cross in the main room makes one feel "like walking into a church."

After protests paralyzed the government for months, Thailand had been expecting a calm New Year's Eve.

Loyalists of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra had left the capital for a five-day national holiday. Many protesters come from Thailand's rural northeast and can travel home only on longer holidays.

However, leaders of antigovernment protests yesterday vowed to renew their demonstrations after the break.

Late Tuesday, leaders of the new government succeeded in delivering a vital policy presentation to national lawmakers that the demonstrators had tried to prevent by surrounding the Parliament building. Instead, the lawmakers gathered at the Foreign Ministry for the policy declaration before the protesters had a chance to react effectively.

A protest leader, Nuttawut Saikua, said demonstrators would probably target the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which Thailand is hosting, probably in late February.

Thailand has been rocked by protests by rival groups of demonstrators who either support or oppose Thaksin, once one of the country's richest men, who now lives in exile after being forced from office in a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption.

In a New Year's message, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called on all people to settle their differences in the coming year.

"Today is the last day of a year which brought great concern to everyone. I'd like all those worries to pass with the year and let us start a new one with hope," he said.

Abhisit said he was not surprised that Thaksin wants to return to Thailand to lead the country. He said Thaksin would first have to face the courts, which have convicted him on corruption charges. He is also banned from holding political office for five years.

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