A number of foreigners were among the casualties from the blaze that erupted shortly after midnight at the Santika Club in an entertainment district of Bangkok.
Victims died from burns, smoke inhalation and injuries during the stampede to escape 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.
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 Ñ showed flames racing through the entire building even as the rescue operation was going on.
The Narenthorn Emergency Center, which was coordinating relief efforts, said 59 people died, with eight of the bodies burned beyond recognition, and another 203 were injured. It was unclear how many foreigners were among the casualties.
Police Lt. Gen. Jongrak Jutanont was quoted by the Web site of The Nation newspaper as saying most of those killed were foreigners, and included tourists from Austria, Japan and Nepal. Earlier, he told reporters that among the injured were nationals of Australia, Nepal, Japan and the Netherlands.
An Associated Press photographer saw the bodies of at least 10 foreigners from the fire at the police morgue but authorities did not provide immediate identification and some rescue workers said that they saw mainly Asians among the dead.
Chokchai said that the fire may 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 website of The Nation newspaper quoted one partygoer, Somchai Frendi, as saying the blaze was caused by the countdown fireworks that ignited the second floor ceiling, which was made largely of soundproofing material.
Jongrak said the initial investigation found that the club’s safety system was ‘sub-standard’ but did not elaborate.
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.
The rescue workers said most of the bodies were found in a pit area surrounding the stage. The club attracts a well-heeled crowd of Thais and foreigners. 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.
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.
An AP reporter who peered inside the still burning building said everything in sight had been burned.
“Bodies, some of them probably alive, were falling off the stretchers as the rescue workers rushed them away. The flames were glowing through the broken glass windows. A part of the building had already collapsed,” said Andrew Jones of England, who arrived at the scene shortly after the fire erupted.
One local Web site about the entertainment scene in Bangkok described the club as attracting “an affluent Thai student crowd, with Euro models and Westerners also popping in, with the crowd all focused on a large stage.”
Just after dawn, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva visited the still-smoldering club but did not talk to reporters.
Safety regulations are infrequently monitored and often loosely enforced in Bangkok. Thailand, for example, passed a law in 1994 requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, but bareheaded riders with policemen blithely looking on are a common sight on Bangkok’s streets today.