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Page last updated at 23:43 GMT, Saturday, 4 April 2009 00:43 UK

Disturbing details in Thai blaze inquiry

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Fire official inspects remains of Santika nightclub, Bangkok, Thailand, 1 January 2009
Two parallel investigations were set up into what sparked the fire

It was just after midnight in the Santika, a popular Bangkok night-club stylishly decorated like a faux-gothic church.

A crowd numbering around 1,000 packed the dance floor, cheering in the New Year to the pounding music of a band called Burn. The name was to prove tragically apt.

Many of the revellers held lit sparklers, which they waved in the air along to the beat. Fireworks were set off from the stage.

Some of the party-goers began looking up at the ceiling. There were what looked like flames, not big at first, flickering around the top of the stage set.

Was this part of the show? It was not.

"I felt hot on my head," said Tak, who was at the club with her Australian fiance.

The police in Thailand are businessmen, not policemen - they don't work for society, they work for their own pocket
Chuwit Kamolvisit
Nightlife entrepreneur

"I looked up at a small fire in the ceiling - then after a few seconds, 'voooom', there were lots of flames, everyone ran at the same time, and then the lights went off."

Video from a security camera inside the club showed burning debris raining down from the ceiling on to the crowd.

Choking through the smoke and stumbling in the dark, often over the bodies of people who had collapsed, Tak made her way to the single exit, and out into the night air.

The fire brigade were at the club within minutes, but the building was already a blazing inferno.

Disturbing details

Sixty-six people died that night, trapped in a building with no sprinklers, no fire exits and no emergency lights.

Shocked by such a toll in a city whose lively nightlife is a big draw for foreign tourists, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva toured the ruins of the Santika the next day and vowed a thorough investigation.

Three months later, there has been little progress.

The police investigation focused on trying to find who started the fire.

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Eyewitness video shows emergency services at the scene

The police pinned the blame on the lead singer of Burn, charging him with setting off fireworks, even though the security camera video showed they were ignited automatically.

They charged the club's owners with recklessness, and with admitting people under 20 years old.

But a parallel investigation set up by the Ministry of Justice revealed far more disturbing details. The Santika, it turned out, was licensed as a private residence, not a club.

It was operating in a zone where nightclubs were banned. The city architect's signature approving the building design had been forged.

And because it was officially just a house - despite being one of Bangkok's best-known and most conspicuous nightclubs - there had been no fire safety inspections.

The place was a death-trap.

This inquiry discovered something else. The owners of the Santika had applied in 2004 for a licence to operate as an entertainment venue, but had been refused by the police.

The police filed 47 charges of operating illegally against the club owners from June 2004 until 17 September 2006.

But after that date there was no further police action against the club, one of whose recent shareholders, clearly listed in company documents, is a senior police officer, Colonel Prayont Lasua.

Bureaucracy and bribes

Chuwit Kamolvisit is one of Bangkok's most colourful characters - a perennial candidate for mayor and a man who has made a fortune out of the city's notorious night-life.

Two distressed women hug 1 Jan 2009
Party-goers emerged bruised and burned from the fire on New Year's Eve

He is also one of the few people willing to speak openly about official corruption, of which he has had plenty of personal experience.

"The police in Thailand are businessmen, not policemen," he said.

"They don't work for society, they work for their own pocket.

"When you have a residential permit you build it, and you change the purpose, alright? Nobody cares. Nobody worries, because you go the police and you pay the police."

Mr Chuwit explained that the bureaucracy involved in running a nightclub legally was so convoluted and expensive it was much easier just to pay bribes and operate illegally.

There is no evidence to show that bribes were paid by the Santika's owners, nor is there any evidence to suggest that Colonel Prayont Lasua has used his position as a senior officer to halt police action against the club.

If you go to a nightclub in Bangkok, and you want to be safe, always check where the exit is, and stay close to it
Prasong Tharachai
Engineering Institute of Thailand

But the failure by the police and the city authorities to act against a club that was so obviously illegal is hard to explain.

Repeated requests by the BBC for interviews with the police and the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) have been turned down.

And now that second investigation has been stopped.

In February it was handed over entirely to the police, the very agency implicated in the safety lapses, and whose earlier efforts have been widely ridiculed.

'Informal style'

Minister of Justice Pirapan Salirathavibhaga said it was normal practice in any crime for the police to handle it, even if they are implicated.

They have to be willing to expose any of their own officers connected to the crime, he said.

Rescue workers carry a body from the Bangkok nightclub
Sixty-six people died in the blaze at the Santika that night

But officials inside the ministry have told the BBC that privately Mr Pirapan is furious that the police have regained control of the investigation and that he wants it handed back to the DSI, Thailand's equivalent of the FBI, which comes directly under his authority.

At the time of writing, that has still not happened.

So how safe are the hundreds of other clubs still running every night in Bangkok, thronged with locals and foreigners?

Under a new law passed at the end of 2007, all public buildings have to be inspected for safety, and of the nearly 6,000 in Bangkok, around half have already been checked.

But according to the BMA, none of those was a pub or nightclub - and even then, only 200 buildings passed their inspection.

"If you go to a nightclub in Bangkok, and you want to be safe, always check where the exit is, and stay close to it," says Prasong Tharachai, from the Engineering Institute of Thailand.

Improving fire safety would not be expensive, he argues. He hopes that after the Santika tragedy that will now happen.

But Chuwit Kamolvisit doubts it ever will. "We prefer things to be informal," he said. "That is the Thai style."



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SEE ALSO
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Country profile: Thailand
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Timeline: Thailand
15 Dec 08 |  Country profiles


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