Officials play blame game in pagoda tragedy

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A dining hall under construction at the Prasat Kokchak Pagoda in Siem Reap province’s Kokchak commune collapsed on Monday. Apsara National Authority

As the authorities continue to identify those most responsible for the collapse of a dining hall in Siem Reap province’s Prasat Kokchak pagoda that killed three people and injured 13 others on Monday, officials are trading blame, while some attributed the tragic incident to substandard construction.

Chhum Kosal, a freelance construction manager based in Siem Reap and a volunteer at the Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC), said negligence and lack of skill were to blame.

A construction manager for more than four years, Kosal said workers at the pagoda had neglected to use proper metal scaffolding rather than bamboo as they reinforced the dining hall with concrete slabs.

“The building and slab-work at the pagoda’s dining hall must have been mired with technical issues. First, they used very small pieces of metal which were not strong enough. Second, the scaffolding was too weak. That’s why when they carried the heavy concrete up, it pulled down the pillars, causing it to collapse,” he said.

He said that only strong metal scaffolding is used in the construction of large buildings, including gated communities and high-rises. The scaffolding poles, he said, normally have fittings linking them together.

At the pagoda, he said, the wood and bamboo poles used to support the pillars were not linked together.

In its report, the provincial authority said the incident had claimed three lives and severely wounded three others, while another 10 sustained minor injuries. The injured included nine construction workers, two monks and two village security guards.

The report said 775 people including members of the armed forces, monks, village security guards and local villagers had joined hands to recover the victims. Nine ambulances,two fire engines, three truck cranes and four excavators were used, it said.

In a separate Facebook post, the provincial administration said Prime Minister Hun Sen had offered his condolence and donated a total of 99 million riel (around $24,000) to the victims’ families.

The injured received three million riel each, while each of the deceased’s families received 20 million riel.

Provincial deputy police chief Phoeng Chanthareth told The Post on Tuesday that the authorities had yet to find those most responsible for the incident.

He said the pagoda’s monks oversaw construction at the dining hall, while residents had provided free labour.

Those involved in laying the concrete slabs at the dining hall on Monday, he said, consisted of police personnel, commune security guards and villagers.

One person had sustained serious injuries to his backbone and had been sent to Calmette hospital in Phnom Penh, while others were being cared for at the provincial referral hospital.

“Before the incident, there were 12 police personnel. Volunteer residents and commune security guards also took part in laying cement on the floor from the morning until 2pm. There were nearly 50 people involved in the construction.

“Before the collapse, when the work nearly finished, some of them came down [the ladder]. Only around 10 people remained at the top when this tragic accident happened,” he said.

He said most of the scaffoldings used to support the concrete slab were 8m high, 30m wide and 40m long. The scaffoldings, he said, were all made from wood.

However, Chanthareth declined to say for certain what caused the pillars and slab casting concrete to break.

He referred reporters to officials at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.

But ministry spokesman Seng Lot denied that construction at the dining hall was under his ministry’s oversight. He said only the Apsara National Authority – a state body tasked with managing the Angkor Archaeological Park – had jurisdiction over construction in Siem Reap.

Long Kosal, the director of the Apsara National Authority’s Dissemination Department, said his institution was not involved in the case.

He said while the body issues permits for construction in Siem Reap, it was not the one to manage construction.

“Prasat Kokchak pagoda is within the heritage protection area. But I can confirm that the pagoda asked for permission from the Apsara National Authority to construct the dining hall.

“We allowed the hall to be constructed. But when it comes to the management of construction standards and construction blueprint, the monks must check with the relevant authorities,” he said before declining further comment.

BWTUC president Sok Kin said substandard construction had previously resulted in dangers because the relevant authorities failed to properly check the construction quality.

“If the relevant authorities issue permission but fail to check the construction properly, I think construction workers will continue to face work-related dangers,” he said.