What could possibly be so important about 75 cents that not only did an 11-year-old boy die trying to retrieve the coins when a man dropped them down a well while fetching water, but six more people then climbed into the well to help — and they all died with him?
In all, seven people died Saturday night trying to retrieve an amount that in most American cities wouldn’t even buy an hour on a parking meter. But this unbelievable tragedy did not take place in an American city. This horror happened in rural Cambodia, where 75 cents likely represented a significant portion of the yearly income for a family now left devastated in one of the poorest countries on Earth.
There are, as would be expected, somewhat conflicting reports about what happened in the tragedy, which took place in Cambodia’s rural and remote northwestern province of Siem Reap. According to Muy Norn, a local police captain, the well was a dry, unused concrete pit — in which case it is unclear how the unidentified man would have dropped the coins, which totalled about 3,000 Cambodian riel, down the well.
But another account given by the man’s daughter, Che Chhan, her father was actually drawing water from the rural Cambodia well when he dropped the money.
One United States dollar, under current exchange rates, it worth about 4,000 riel, so 3,000 riel is worth about 3/4 of a dollar, that is, 75 cents.
“My youngest brother thought the amount of money was huge for poor people like us,” Che Chhan, said, explaining why her 11-year-old brother went down into the well to get the money back.
But the boy never came back up.
Police Captain Muy Norn said that the father jumped into the well first. In either case, the first person in the well quickly passed out due to lack of oxygen at the bottom of the narrow well. A person can be overcome by asphyxiation in just 40 seconds when deprived oxygen.
Six more family members and villagers climbed down the well to help — and all suffocated and died before anyone was able to escape.
While to people in wealthy countries such as the United States, risking one’s life over an amount less than a dollar may seem insane, average household income in Cambodia is just $750 per year — and most rural families make well below the average — compared to about $51,000 in the United States.