NATURAL DISASTERS AND MAN-MADE DISASTERS IN THAILAND: FIRES, FLOODS AND EARTHQUAKES

NATURAL DISASTERS IN THAILAND

In December 2006, an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale struck Chiang Mai Province, damaging college buildings and sending residents fleeing from their homes. No injuries were reported. In January 2006, a magnitude 5.7 quake centered near the border Myanmar border shook buildings Chiang Mai. An abbot at Wat Mahawan in Chiang Mai’s Muang district was worried the pagoda there might collapse because a crack in the structure became lanonger after the tremor.

Despite the annual southwest monsoon, Thailand is subject to drought. Droughts in the 1990s linked with El Nino prevented the planting of a second crop of rice in some places. These droughts left large parts of Thailand dry and parched, The northernmost province of Chiang Rai was declared a disaster zone due to thick cloUds of smoke caUsed by wild fires that were burning out of control in the region. Many fires were ignited by farmers burring their fields in preparation for the upcoming rainy season.

El Niño is a periodic climate condition that occurs an average of every five years. It is strongest in the Pacific but has global ramifications. Caused when a dominate high pressure system over the Pacific collapses, it causes wind directions and ocean currents in the Pacific to change direction, throwing off prevailing winds and bringing drought to Indonesia, Southeast Asia, southern Africa and Australia, heavy rains and floods to Peru and east Africa, typhoons to Japan, stormy weather to the United States and disruptions to monsoons in India. [Source: Curt Suplee, National Geographic, March 1999]

In January 2002, two people were killed and thousands of homes were damaged when hail stones as large as coconuts fell on nine provinces in northern Thailand.

Thailand is also vulnerable to devastating tsunamis, such as the one that struck the Andaman Sea coast on December 26, 2004. It killed more than 5,300 people, including foreign visitors, and left another 2,900 missing.

Floods in Thailand

Massive flooding occurred in 1918 and 1943 in northern Thailand. Flooding occurred even where there was abundant forests. Massive landslides in southern Thailand in 1988 killed hundreds of people and buried villages and farmland under uprooted trees and sand. Disastrous floods in Thailand in the 1980s were blamed on erosion from deforestation.

Disastrous floods that triggered the 1989 ban on logging occurred in November, 1988. During the floods, 350 people died and there was $120 million in property losses. Flood waters and tons of cut timber washed down deforested slopes in Surai Thani Province , burying a number of villages. Soil erosion caused by deforestation exacerbated the floods, thereby making the damage and loss of lives much worse.

Sometimes severe flooding, such as in 2011, occurs in La Niña years. La Niña refers to a cooling of the mid-Pacific equatorial region as seawater there cools to temperatures below normal. It often occurs in years following El Nino. The effects are often opposite those of El Niño: floods occurring in places where droughts occurred under El Niño and cold winters occurring where mild winters occurred under El Nino. La Niñas are like El Niños in reverse. They start when prevailing easterly trade winds intensify as air pressure become abnormally high around Tahiti and an unusually low pressure develops over Australia. The strong trade winds push the water westward. Warm waters flow towards Asia. Cold, deep water upwells to the surface along the Americans. The cool water dilutes the warmer liquid at the surface, causing the temperatures to drop. Nutrients become more plentiful and evaporation decreases, reducing rain and cloud formation in the eastern Pacific. With more warm water pushed to the western Pacific, storm clouds intensify there and bring more rain to Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

In 1995, 200 people were killed in floods that racked 64 or Thailand's 76 provinces. In August 1999, four people were killed and more than a 1,000 were left homeless after floods resulting from four days of torrential rains hammered Chanthaburi, a low-lying coastal province 210 kilometers southeast of Bangkok. Waist-deep water in floods in July 1999 forced the evacuation of Chantaburi prison.

On flooding in 2000, AFP reported: “In flood-struck northeastern Thailand, near the city of Khon Kaen, several large bridges had washed out and were sunk into rivers, and a number of houses could be seen sliding into the water. The Thai ministry of interior said that 47 people have died so far in that country, and 2.6 million people have been affected nationwide, in 43 provinces, by the flooding. Some 74,000 people have been evacuated from their homes so far across Thailand. Region-wide more than two million people across Vietnam, Cambodia Thailand and Laos are now homeless as a result of the worst floods in a generation sweeping through the Mekong River basin. [Source: Agence France Presse, September 22, 2000]

See Separate Article FLOODS IN THAILAND 2011

Floods in the 2000s

In 2001, more than 160 people were killed in floods and mudslides that occurred after heavy rains in north and northeastern parts of the country. The worst hit area was Phetchabun province where at least 121 people were killed when mudslides swept down off the mountains and buried seven villages while the residents there were sleeping. On survivor, a 6-year-old boy, was found three kilometers from his home, He said he managed to grab a hold of some debris and hung on until he was deposited in a bamboo grove.

In December 2005, the worst floods in 40 years in southern Thailand near the Malaysian border killed at least 20 people, halted train service and forced thousands to flee to higher ground

In May 2006, two days of torrential monsoon rains in northern Thailand produced floods that swept away houses and vehicles in swollen rivers and mud slides and killed more than 100 people. Flooding of this magnitude had not occurred for 60 years. Many people ignored evacuation warnings. Some blamed a lack of a good warning system for the degree of the tragedy.

In November 2006, devastating floods in northern Thailand killed 39 people and submerged 2 million homes. Ubon Ratchathani Province was among the hardest hit provinces. Flood waters flowed down the Chao Phraya Rover and reached Bangkok.

In April 2007, flash floods caused by heavy rains in southern Thailand killed 37 people. Among the dead were tourists swept away at mountainside waterfalls—Sairun and Praisawon waterfall in the Yantakao district in Trang Province. about 200 people were thought to have been at the waterfalls when the tragedy occurred. .

In September 2008, Reuters reported: “Flash floods and landslides have killed 50 people in Vietnam and Thailand, swept away thousands of homes and inundated farmland, official reports said. In Thailand, the death toll from floods triggered by heavy monsoon rains has risen to 18, while nearly 190,000 people have been treated for water-related illnesses and injuries, the Health Ministry said. It said there were no major outbreaks of disease since the heavy rains began more than two weeks ago, affecting some 800,000 people in the country of 63 million. Some 500,000 acres of farmland, most of it rice paddy, has been inundated, affecting roughly 2 percent of the total paddy for the 2008-09 growing season, according the Agriculture Ministry data.[Source: Reuters, September 28, 2008]

Floods in Thailand in 2010

In November 2010, a devastating flood struck southern Thailand. Thanyarat Doksone of Associated Press wrote: “Floodwaters that swamped vast areas of southern Thailand and inundated its largest city have killed 12 people, officials said, bringing the flooding death toll from across the country to more than 120. The government's Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department said 122 people have died and nearly 6 million residents in 39 provinces in the northern, central, eastern and northeastern regions had been affected by two weeks of heavy floods in October. [Source: Thanyarat Doksone, Associated Press, November 4, 2010~]

“Hat Yai, the urban hub of the south, was coming back to life after the floodwaters quickly receded. Hundreds of residents gathered to clean up the main streets that were once accessible only by motorboats. Rows of cars submerged in the floodwaters were being removed from the streets and piles of trash taken away by trucks. "It will take three days to clear up the garbage and make the city livable like before," said Hat Yai mayor Prai Pattano in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "My only concern is the water service is still not functioning and people don't have normal access to clean water." Prai said he estimated the damage from the flooding in Hat Yai to be around 7 billion baht ($234 million). ~

“A tropical depression that dumped constant rain on the region for two days triggered the flooding in 11 out of 14 southern provinces. Rail service to the region was partially restored Thursday morning and the airport on Samui island, a popular tourist destination in the Gulf of Thailand, reopened after a temporary shutdown caused by a submerged runway. Thousands of troops were deployed and Thailand's only aircraft carrier had earlier been sent to help the victims in the coastal provinces. The deluge in Thailand's south - along a peninsula it shares with Malaysia - followed two weeks of heavy floods in October, mostly in central and northeastern Thailand, that killed 107 people. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva described it as "one of the worst natural calamities" in decades.” ~

Floods Kill 23 in Thailand in 2013

In October 2013, Associated Press reported: “Thai authorities said that floods have killed more than 20 people and affected areas across the country over the past two weeks, though experts say there is little risk of a repeat of the devastation that occurred during record floods two years earlier. Thirty-two out of 77 provinces have experienced flooding since mid-September and 23 people have been killed, the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department said in a report, adding that 25 provinces still have flooding. It said more than 2.8 million people were affected by the floodwaters and 15,254 had been evacuated from their homes. [Source: Associated Press, October 2, 2013]

Authorities downplayed concerns of a repeat of 2011. “Thanks to the dredging of the canals and the weather, at this point there is nothing to panic about,” Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra tweeted. “Currently the water level in the Chao Phraya River is still low, so there’s nothing to worry.”

MAN-MADE DISASTERS

In 1995, 28 people died, many of them schoolchildren, when a crowded ferry jetty on Bangkok's Chao Phraya River collapsed.

In May 2012, three men plunged to their deaths from the 69th floor of Thailand’s tallest building when the platform they were using to install an advertisng sign split after a supporting cable snapped. Two other men were left clinging to the structure and were rescued from the 68th floor.

See Railroad Accidents, Automobile Accidents, Air Accidents

Fires and Explosions

In 1991, several thousands dwellings in the Klong Toey slum area in Bangkok were destroyed or damaged and thousand of people were evacuated after an explosion in a chemical warehouse in a neighboring port caused fires and the release of poisonous gases. In May 1993, a fire in Bangkok toy factory killed 188 workers.

In October 2004, a massive explosion at a fireworks factory in the ancient Thai capital of Ayuthaya, killed 14 people, including a 4-year-old boy. The factory was operating illegally. A year before the disaster it had its license revoked following an earlier explosion.

In May 2006, eight people were killed and 56 were injured in a fire at a nightclub in a resort in Pattaya. The fire broke out shortly before the club was to open. All the victims were Thai. Most of them workers at the club.

In January 2009, one person was killed and 47 others were injured in a fire in a shopping and residential plaza in Bangkok’s Chinatown. The fire started on the first floor of a nine-story building. Some people fled to the roof where they were rescued by helicopters.

In January 2012, three people were killed and around 40 were injured when fireworks at a Chinese New Year celebration exploded near a Chinese temple in Surphan Buri Province, northwest of Bangkok. The huge explosion set houses on fire and sent flaming shrapnel raining down on a residential neighborhood.

Factory accidents are not uncommon. Twelve workers were killed in an explosion and fire at a paint factory that employed over a thousand people. The week before 20 people died when a Thai Army arsenal blew up.

Hotel Fires

May, 1997, a fire at the Royal Jomtien Resort hotel in Pattaya killed at least 92 people. Many of those who died might have survived but two of the main fire escapes were padlocked shut, people were trapped in their rooms because their electronic keys didn't work when the electricity was cut, and emergency hoses were too frayed to use.

In September 2007, 16 people were injured in a fire that broke out in the famed Mandarin hotel. The fire occurred in the hotel’s new 14-story wing in the early hours of the morning and gutted the second to fifth floors. Most of guests managed to escape by themselves but some called for help. Most of the injuries, including smoke inhalation, were minor.

In March 2012, a fire at a high-rise hotel in Bangkok's main tourist district that produced large amounts of smoke in the upper floors killed at least one foreigner and injuring almost two dozen other people. “When firefighters arrived at the 15-story Grand Park Avenue Bangkok hotel they saw people screaming for help from the upper floors,” firefighter Rampan Kaewyongkod told AP. "People were panicked and some wanted to jump from windows. We had to tell them to wait and we sent cranes in to help," Rampan said. The foreign woman who died suffered from smoke inhalation was taken unconscious from the building but later died at a Bangkok hospital, said city official Wiparat Chaiyanukit told AP. The injured included two Thais and 19 foreigners, most of whom suffered from smoke inhalation. Two of the foreigners were identified as Russians.

According to AP: “Investigators were still trying to determine the cause of the fire, which started on the building's fourth floor shortly before 10 p.m. and was quickly extinguished, but sent suffocating smoke to the upper floors at an hour when many people were in their rooms. Scores of people were evacuated and rescue teams treated at least a dozen people with resuscitators. The mid-range hotel, formerly known as the Grand Mercure Park Avenue, has 221 rooms and is located off Sukhumvit Road, a tourist and residential district popular with foreigners. A few days before a major fire broke out at an office building in a nearby neighborhood, doing major damage but causing no deaths.

Bangkok Nightclub Fire in 2009 Kills 65

In January 2009, 66 people were killed and more than 200 were injured in a fire at the upscale Santika nightclub in Bangkok on New Year’s Day. Police charged the singer of a pop group called Burn with negligence for lighting fireworks that set off the fire. Police said: “Eyewitnesses and evidence points t fireworks as the cause of the fire at Santika pub, because the fireworks hit the club ceiling and the fire broke out 30 seconds after the fireworks were lit.” Among the injured were 31 people in critical condition with burns on over 70 percent of their bodies. Many of the trapped party-goers died of smoke inhalation, while others were crushed to death in the stampede to get out of the front exit. There was a back exit as well, but that was known only to staff members.

The owner of the nightclub, a Thai-Chinese named Wisuth Setawat, who was burned himself in the fire, was charged with negligence resulting death and allowing underage youth into the club, as a 17-year-old high school was found among the dead. A police spokesman said, “More than 1,000 people were allowed in the building, which has a capacity for only 500 people. The safety measures were also dysfunctional. Fire exits were not clearly marked; automatic fire extingushers were not present.” "The assumptions are a short circuit or small fireworks that triggered the fire inside the club." Police General Jongrak Jutanont, deputy national police commissioner, told AFP. Insurance fraud had been ruled out as a motive but that police had since 2004 refused Santika an operational licence because of safety concerns.

A Singaporean national was among those killed and 41 foreigners, including citizens of Australia, France, Japan and Britain, were injured. AP reported: “Hospital rosters showed 13 foreigners were treated for injuries and one man, a Singaporean national, had died. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia said three of its nationals were also among the hospitalized. Victims died from burns, smoke inhalation and injuries during the stampede from the club, which had only one door for the public, police Maj. Gen. Chokchai Deeprasertwit said. Firefighters said a door at the rear was known only to the staff, while an Associated Press reporter saw a third door at one side of the building. [Source: AP January 1, 2009 *]

Video footage of the disaster showed bloodied, bruised and burned victims being dragged out of the burning, two-story club or managing to run through the door or shattered windows. The video — provided to AP Television News by rescue workers — showed flames racing through the entire building even as the rescue operation was going on. *

Pol. Lt. Col. Sujettana Sotthibandhu, a forensics expert, said it might take about a week to identify almost 30 bodies that were badly disfigured. Rescue workers said most of the bodies were found in a pit area surrounding the stage. The corpses, placed in white body bags, were laid out in rows in the parking lot in front of the club, which was strewn with shoes of the victims, water bottles, parking stickers and other debris. Emergency workers said the rescue operation was delayed in part because of heavy traffic in the Ekamai entertainment district. Firefighter Watcharapong Sri-saard said 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. An AP reporter who peered inside the still-burning building said everything in sight had been burned. *

One Web site about Bangkok's entertainment scene described the club as attracting "an affluent Thai student crowd, with Euro models and Westerners also popping in" with a "whisky-sipping crowd all focused on a large stage." Another site said the high ceiling and a cross in the main room made one feel "like walking into a church."

Survivors and Eyewitness Accounts of the 2009 Bangkok Nightclub Fire

"Everybody was pushing against each other trying to get out to the front door as quickly as possible. I saw people, particularly young girls, being pushed away and crushed underneath as others were stomping on them trying to get out," Sompong Tritaweelap, who lives in an apartment behind the nightclub, told AP. "People were screaming for help from every window. It was a terrible sight. Their hair and clothes were on fire but there was nothing they could do as the fire engulfed them," he said. Sompong said the fire spread through the entire building within 10 minutes. [Source: AP January 1, 2009 *]

The Nation newspaper quoted one partygoer, Somchai Frendi, as saying the blaze was caused when the countdown fireworks ignited the second floor ceiling, which was made largely of soundproofing material. Sompong quoted a maid at the club as giving a similar account. "Some of the sparks fell onto the carpeted floor as well. Within seconds, smoke was everywhere," he quoted her as saying. Police Lt. Gen. Jongrak Jutanont said the initial investigation found the club's safety system was "substandard" but did not elaborate.*

Steven Hall, a British contractor who was at the club with his new Thai wife, Waranya, told the Times of London it took clubbers some time before they realized the fire was a real danger. When he saw flames begin to move across the ceiling, he thought at first it was part of the pyrotechnics show. "The flames spread very very fast," he told the Times. "It went straight along the ceiling." “We were all dancing and suddenly there was a big flame that came out of the front of the stage and everybody was running away,” said Oh Benjamas, another witness, who added that clubbers were given sparklers shortly before midnight. *

AFP reported: “Survivors recalled how revellers shoved and trampled on screaming victims to escape the New Year fire at a packed Bangkok club. Newspapers here carried harrowing accounts of the scenes of panic and fear inside the Santika nightclub in the Thai capital's popular Ekkamai district. Thanawut Santhong, who lost three friends, told the Bangkok Post newspaper that fire broke out within an hour of revellers ringing in the New Year. He said each guest was given a sparkler to light up during the countdown to 2009, but suddenly smoke engulfed the club and all the lights went out. "People were in panic after the blackout," he said. "The situation became worse as people screamed 'fire' and tried to escape." He recalled party-goers crying, screaming, pushing and stepping on top of one another as they struggled to steer a way through the few doors out of the club, while flames rained down on people's hair and clothes from the ceiling. [Source: AFP January 1, 2009=]

One Japanese tourist, Wada Keiichi, 25, was in a coma and suffering from burns over 60 percent of his body, doctors said. Fire brigade officials told AFP the death toll was so high because there were few exits and the windows on the upper floors had iron bars across them. Some victims were also trapped in the basement of the club. [Source: AFP January 1, 2009=]

Four Dead, 11 Injured in Phuket Disco Fire

A pre-dawn blaze at the popular Tiger Bar and Discotheque in Phuket killed four people and injured 11. Among the injured were four French nationals. The Phuket Gazette reported: “Kathu Police were notified of the blaze at the well-known Patong nightspot at about 4am. Patong Municipality Fire Department rescuers raced to the scene with eight fire engines. It took them about one hour to extinguish the fire. The firefighters had to battle the blaze in the darkness, as power had to be cut throughout the municipality for safety reasons. Kathu Police said that the cause of the fire appears to have been related to an explosion in an electrical transformer. [Source: Phuket Gazette, August 17, 2012]

The most seriously injured person was 30-year-old Frenchman Benjamin Tallanotte, who suffered second-degree burns to 40 per cent of his body. He was among two victims who required admittance to Patong Hospital. The other victim was 42-year-old Noodaneg Pramangkata, who suffered from dizziness and hyperventilation. Other French nationals treated and released were identified as: Nicolas Robyn, 25, minor injury to the right arm; Mathieu Lagrange, 40, minor hand and arm injury; Ms Yasmine Khelaef-humber, panic attack. Also suffering a serious injury was 25-year-old Kanyaporn Kantong, who was at the venue with two friends when they began to smell smoke in one of the two second-storey bars attached to the disco.

The Gazette was told that once news of the fire spread through the nightclub, many patrons rushed to the front door. Many people were hurt as they tried to exit via the stairs at the front.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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