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Thai Police Probe Club Fire that Killed Dozens

0102-AP0901010751

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's interior minister said Friday that a Bangkok nightclub fire that killed about 60 New Year's Eve partygoers could further damage the country's image, already battered by widespread political protests and a recent weeklong closure of the capital's two airports.

The statement came as police investigated the cause of the fire and grieving families prayed for the spirits of their loved ones. Police Maj. Gen. Jongrak Jutanont said authorities were focusing on whether the blaze was sparked by a countdown fireworks display organized by the club owners or by firecrackers brought in by guests.

A Singaporean was among the dead, while injured foreigners were from Australia, Belgium, Britain, France, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the United States, according to officials and reporters.

Interior Minister Chavarat Charnvirakul said the blaze could further damage the country's image, already hurt by months of anti-government protests that culminated in an occupation of Bangkok's airports. The unrest has crippled the country's essential tourism industry at a time when the economy was already sagging amid the global financial meltdown.

"It's about the lax law enforcement which we need to strengthen," he told reporters while visiting victims at Chulalongkorn Hospital. "But an accident like this can happen everywhere and in every country. But I really don't want this to happen because it came from carelessness."

The fire broke out shortly after midnight and raced through the jammed two-story club, trapping many as they tried to flee through one main door.

Nicole Trau, an Austrian woman who survived the blaze, told the Austria Press Agency that her group initially thought the fire was part of the festivities.

"At the beginning, it was really small, and we thought it was part of the show," Trau, who escaped injury, was quoted as saying. "But then it started looking extremely hot and we knew something wasn't right. Within minutes, the entire upper floor was in flames."

Alex Wargacki, a British foreign exchange trader, said an "angel" dragged him out of the club after he became unconscious from smoke inhalation, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported on its Web site.

"I woke up and heard this voice saying, 'come on, come on this way.' Then I felt myself being dragged towards an exit," the BBC quoted him as saying from the hospital where he is in intensive care. "Had it not been for this voice with the hand of an angel I would not be alive today."

No charges related to the fire have yet been filed, but the owner, Thai-Chinese businessman Wisuth Setsawat, was initially charged with allowing underage customers into the Santika Club, Jongrak said. A 17-year-old high school student was found among the dead, he said.

The government's insurance commission said it was likely that the club had not renewed its fire insurance, which expired before the incident.

Families of victims gathered at the gutted, charred club in a Bangkok entertainment district to take part in Buddhist prayers, beseeching the spirits of the dead to make their way back home.

The Phranakorn Center, an official agency that deals with accidents in Bangkok, said Thursday that at least 61 people died while more than 200 were injured. The Public Health Ministry revised earlier estimates of foreigners injured, saying Friday the number stood at 41. It said a complete list had not yet been compiled.

The state-owned Radio Thailand gave the death toll Friday as 58 while some Thai media said 59 had perished.

Jongrak said that 21 bodies, burned beyond recognition, have yet to be identified.

He said that an investigation into the club's history found that its application for operation five years ago was turned down by the metropolitan police because the building "wasn't ready." But the club opened anyway on the basis of a court appeal.

"Even now, the court still hasn't issued a ruling," he said.

The party at the wildly popular, classy Santika was billed as both a New Year's blowout and a last celebration at the club before it moved to a new location. The promotion poster read, "Goodbye Santika."

Sompong Tritaweelap, who lives in an apartment behind the nightclub, said the fire spread through the entire building within 10 minutes.

"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.

Associated Press writer William J. Kole contributed to this report from Vienna, Austria.

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