PHUKET: A huge pall of smoke rose over the holiday island of Phuket today as rescuers prepared to search the blackened ruins of a landmark shopping centre for victims.
The fire sent the first people sprinting for the exits about 9.45pm last night but it was not until 6am today that scores of firemen considered the inferno to be under control.
Flames still burned, but not with the intensity that drove a huge column of flames and smoke scores of metres into the air at the height of the blaze last night.
Today a nearby resident at the flattened site in Thepkasattri Road, Phuket City, told Phuketwan he was hoping to find a missing friend.
''My friend worked in the store but we haven't seen him for hours,'' the resident said. The crowd numbered several hundreds anxious people, as dawn broke.
Soon the search will begin. The famous store was noted for its maze-like warren of aisles and a confusing web of doors.
When the cry of ''Fire! Fire!'' went up last night, one SuperCheap worker said, ''I just didn't believe it. Only when other people started running did we all run.''
The woman, about 35 years old, said she had been working at SuperCheap for 14 years as a shelf packer.
''When the fire began, staff tried to put it out themselves. But there was foam, plastic, paper, clothing . . . there was no way the flames could be stopped.''
About 3000 people were employed there, she said, both Thais and Burmese. They were all jobless now, she believed.
''This place was my second home,'' she said. ''I have been told that the store's owner is in hospital.''
There never did appear to be a great deal of attention to the possibility of fire. Today came an added economic concern.
SuperCheap was a source for most foodstuffs for many of Phuket's poor and underprivileged. Thousands of Burmese who work legally or illegally on the island for subsistence wages shop there.
Long-time customer Prasert Pansuk said: ''I have been coming here for almost 20 years. If you only had 10 baht to spend, you could buy a meal.
''Where will we get our food from now? SuperCheap is where everybody who isn't rich came to shop.''
The main store also was a hub for about 25 smaller SuperCheap convenience stores across the island. The blaze will have a huge impact on the Phuket economy.
With a tear in her eye, regular SuperCheap customer Jamnean Techaphan told Phuketwan she owned the No. 25 VIP Shopper Card at the store.
''I came to know everybody inside,'' she said. ''My home is at the other end of Phuket but I came here every day to buy to stock my own shop.
''Many families could survive the high prices on Phuket by coming here. Who will sell as cheap as SuperCheap?''
''It has always been an amazing place,'' another waiting onlooker said. ''You could buy anything there. Now it's all gone.''
Shoppers from the neighboring province of Phang Nga turned up at first light today, expecting to pick up bargains that usually made the trip to Phuket worthwhile.
A large part of the old Phuket - where people's practical needs always overwhelmed rules and regulations - fell to the ground overnight, along with SuperCheap's tin sheds.
With spot fires still burning brightly amid the ruins today, it could be another 48 hours before the ruins can be properly cleared and searched.
A temporary table for notification of missing people was set up this morning on the pavement outside the still-smoking ruins.
The Phuket National Blood Service is asking urgently for donors, with medical teams still waiting on the edges of the blackened site. Only firemen have been allowed in so far.
A spokesperson for the Thai Insurance company came forward today to say the SuperCheap buildings and contents were covered for 620 million baht.
Officials on Phuket were fearing the worst and have organised an official missing persons' centre at Rajabhat University where residents can go to list the names of friends or relatives.
Immediate compensation of 50,000 baht will be paid to each family in the event that bodies are found beneath today's smouldering tin ruins.
Six neighboring houses were damaged.
The family of security guard Jongdee Chinprai added her name to the missing list early today - then promptly removed it when she turned up safe.
Phuket Governor Maitree Intrusud, who was in Bangkok yesterday, is expected back on Phuket on an early flight.
PEOPLE who wish to help victims of the SuperCheap blaze are advised to call either of the following numbers:
076 218444 076 212047