Page last updated at 15:42 GMT, Thursday, 1 January 2009

Hazy safety in Bangkok party zone

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Police secure the site of a fire that ripped through Santika nightclub in Bangkok
Fifty-nine people met their death in the New Year's Eve blaze at Santika nightclub

Bangkok is a party town, and spectacular New Year celebrations are held in many of the clubs which have made the city's nightlife renowned around the world.

The Santika was a spacious, two-storey club, stylishly decorated like a mock gothic cathedral, complete with fake arches and a large cross hung from the ceiling.

A natural magnet for partygoers, it had become one of Bangkok's most popular entertainment venues, packed out with young Thais and foreigners at weekends.

A friend of mine was on the dance floor shortly after midnight, when he first noticed the fire.

He told me he had seen small fireworks being tossed from the stage to celebrate the New Year - then noticed flames around the stage and creeping up to the ceiling.

Suddenly, he said, the flames seemed to be everywhere, and the lights went out.

He described people stumbling towards the single entrance, trying to light their way with their mobile phones.

Life or death

The crush, combined with the intense heat and smoke, drove him back, and he retreated to the women's toilet.

Victims bodies' outside Santika nightclub
Police have described the club's fire precautions as "sub-standard"
Jammed in there with around 40 others, he spoke for what he thought would be the last time on his phone to his girlfriend who was outside.

Fortunately the fire brigade managed to get into the burning building and guide them to safety.

Those trapped in the men's toilet were not so lucky.

The scenes outside the burning club were just as horrific, as people screamed for help from the burning windows, and bruised and burned survivors staggered out into the car park.

Just two hours after the fire broke out, the Santika was a smouldering shell, with dozens of corpses wrapped in sheets lying on the ground.

The police say it will take up to two weeks to establish the cause of the fire, but already one police officer on the scene has described the fire precautions at the club as "sub-standard".

That may turn out to be an understatement.

Shadowy underworld

The new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has already expressed his disbelief that fireworks could have been allowed inside a building packed with perhaps 1,000 partygoers.

PM Vejjajiva, left, and police chief Gen. Wongsuwan inspect the site of the Santika nightclub
New PM Vejjajiva (left) has called for stricter safety regulations

But I doubt many other residents of Bangkok will be so surprised.

Eyewitnesses say the Santika had only one known exit, a ceiling lined with inflammable material, and no emergency lighting.

If so, it will have been no worse than the hundreds of other clubs in this city, that open and close and then re-open again, sometimes under different names, with bewildering frequency.

Bangkok's dance clubs, like most of its famous nightlife, inhabit a shadowy, twilight world of hazy, loosely-enforced regulation and under-the-table payments to mafia-type figures.

Elements of the police and army are believed to make substantial sums of money out of the club scene through protection rackets.

Safety inspections are rare or non-existent.

Perhaps the shocking death toll at the Santika will provoke the authorities to look harder at safety in their well-known night spots - an important part of Thailand's appeal to foreign tourists.

But an informal and laissez-faire approach to law-enforcement and safety is commonplace in many other aspects of life in Thailand.

It will almost certainly take more than one tragedy to change that.

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