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At least 82 dead in Thai hotel fire; rescuers end search for victims

July 12, 1997

PATTAYA, Thailand (AP) _ Rescue workers ended their search for survivors today in the charred shell of a 17-story resort hotel where at least 82 people died, many trapped behind locked emergency exit doors.

The 450-room Royal Jomtien Resort became a death trap on Friday when a kitchen fire ripped through luxurious hallways that lacked even basic safety equipment such as smoke detectors, fire extinguishers or sprinklers.

``In hotels in most other countries there are fire extinguishers in all the hallways,″ said one firefighter who refused to give his name. ``But not in Thailand.″

The disaster in this tourist city 70 miles south of Bangkok was Thailand’s worst hotel fire.

Adding to the debacle, a pickup truck carrying volunteer rescuers to the fire crashed Friday, killing 11 people and injuring three, police said.

The fire injured at least 64 people, many of them with serious burns, hospital officials said. About 200 people were in the hotel when the blaze broke out Friday morning.

In Branford, Conn., Miriam Stein watched anxiously Friday as television footage showed her daughter and granddaughter make a dramatic escape from the burning hotel.

The two, Rochelle Stein-Sami and 7-year-old Sanna, climbed into harnesses from the window of their top-floor room and were pulled to safety _ the girl still clutching her brown teddy bear.

``We’re so grateful to the helicopters and all the people who helped us,″ Mrs. Stein-Sami said. ``But we’re so very sad that many people didn’t make it out.″

Survivors reported missing relatives. Police said a few more bodies might still be found later in parts of the hotel that were unsafe to enter immediately.

``We’re not engineers, but we know this building isn’t safe,″ police Capt. Somchai Poolkhun said. ``The floors or the whole building could cave in or collapse at any time.″

Pattaya, known for sun and sin, is a notorious center for Thai organized crime. Police and locals wondered whether corruption may explain why inspectors apparently overlooked the hotel’s safety violations.

A Pattaya district official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the 8-year-old hotel was built before smoke detectors became mandatory. He said that he believed it had never been inspected for fire safety.

Gang bosses are frequently joint-venture partners in businesses, hotels and entertainment venues. The Royal Jomtien Resort is owned by several joint-venture partners.

Pattaya city officials said they would attempt to identify all the hotel’s owners and take action against them.

The fire started when a gas oven exploded in a first-floor coffee shop, immediately killing eight kitchen workers. Fed by a gas leak, flames raced through the entire building, burning for 12 hours as guests screamed for help from upper-floor windows.

Many of the victims died because the hotel had locked emergency exits and fire escapes to prevent guests from leaving without paying their bills.

The building had no sprinkler system, fire alarms, smoke detectors or fire extinguishers.

Pattaya’s outmoded fire equipment could not reach flames above the fourth floor, police said. More than 100 firefighters called in from Bangkok to assist had to fight through traffic snarled by beachgoers.

The dead included six Hungarians, three Koreans and one Belgian, Thai tourism officials said. Another Hungarian was reported missing. The rest of the dead were Thais, including the wife of one of the hotel owners.

Employees of Thailand’s electricity authority and the local Pepsi Co. subsidiary who were attending seminars in the hotel were among the dead.

The Royal Jomtien Resort hotel on Jomtien Beach is one of hundreds of hotels lining the white sandy beaches of Pattaya.

U.S. Navy ships frequently dock at the popular tourist destination, which is notorious for vice. Prostitutes of all ages are available to foreigners who make so-called ``sex tours.″

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh branded Pattaya Thailand’s ``greatest source of evil.″

Bangkok has had a high number of hotel and department store fires in recent years. Fire safety experts say many Thai buildings fail to meet basic safety standards.

In 1993, 188 people died in a fire at a toy factory in the northeast. Police said factory supervisors had locked emergency exits to prevent workers from taking breaks.

Update hourly