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Thai police to charge club owner over deadly fire

BANGKOK, Thailand - The owner of a Thai nightclub where at least 62 revelers perished in a New Year's Eve fire will face criminal charges over the blaze, which was likely sparked by a countdown fireworks display on the stage of the jammed nightspot, police said Sunday.

BANGKOK, Thailand - The owner of a Thai nightclub where at least 62 revelers perished in a New Year's Eve fire will face criminal charges over the blaze, which was likely sparked by a countdown fireworks display on the stage of the jammed nightspot, police said Sunday.

Wisuth Setsawat, a Thai-Chinese businessman, broke down in tears as he offered apologies to relatives of the victims Sunday before being questioned by police over the disaster at his Santika Club.

The fire raced through the two-storey building with victims succumbing to the blaze, smoke inhalation and injuries from a stampede as hundreds of revelers tried to escape through a single main door.

Police Gen. Jongrak Jutanont said Sunday that Wisuth would be charged with carelessness leading to the deaths of others. He has already been charged with allowing in an underage customer, a 17-year-old high school student who was among the dead.

"More investigations will follow to pinpoint everyone who is responsible for this," the police officer told reporters, adding that more than 100 witnesses have already been interviewed.

Earlier, police said 13 people were to be questioned including Wisuth, managers of his White and Brothers Co., and staffers of a company hired to put on the countdown fireworks display on the stage of the Santika Club, which Jongrak said probably sparked the blaze.

The death toll rose by one to 62 on Sunday with 31 others in critical condition having sustained burns over 70 per cent of their bodies, according to Narenthorn Emergency Center.

A total of 78 patients, including 47 in stable condition, were still being treated at Bangkok hospitals with 17 of them foreigners, the centre said.

Police Col. Nithi Banthuwong, who is in charge of identifying the dead, said nine severely burned and disfigured bodies had yet to be identified.

Accompanied by his lawyer and friends, Wisuth reported to police Sunday afternoon after failing to show up at the station on Saturday. He denied fleeing, saying he has suffered from smoke inhalation after the fire started.

"I'd like to apologize to the relatives for the dead people and the injured," Wisuth said as he raised his palms in the traditional Thai prayer-like "wai" gesture. He broke into tears as he tried to continue talking to reporters.

According to his lawyer, the club's 31 business partners have decided to set up a fund to help those affected by the tragedy and some compensation had already been paid to relatives of 11 dead and injured victims.

The lawyer also confirmed that Santika has not renewed its fire insurance, which expired four months ago, and thus police could rule out any foul play related to insurance claims.

Mourners, including tourists and relatives of the Thai dead, have come to lay flowers at the parking area in front of the charred club. Buddhists among them lit incense sticks and chanted prayers for the repose of the souls of the departed.

Teenagers have also been coming to the club at night with cameras, hoping to capture ghosts in their photos. Belief in ghosts is widespread in Thailand, with some saying they can sometimes be seen on photos but not the naked eye.

 
 
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