At least six people were killed and more than 40 injured when a 10-storey apartment building under construction collapsed on Thursday in Kisii Town.
The building on the Daraja Moja-Nyambera road, near Ram Hospital, came tumbling down mid-morning, bringing the town to a standstill as residents rushed to the scene.
A huge crowd, most rushing to take pictures and videos using their mobile phones, milled around the building, hampering rescue efforts.
County ambulances rushed to the scene to pick up the injured but most were ferried by boda bodas to Kisii Teaching and Referral Hospital before the ambulances arrived.
By the time of going to press, a search for more survivors was still going on although heavy rains pounding the area threatened to hamper the combined efforts of the Red Cross, the County Disaster Management Team and St Johns Ambulance.
Government Spokesman Eric Kiraithe said the national government along with the county, the Kenya Police and the Kenya Red Cross were conducting a search-and-rescue operation with support from locals.
“We understand the deep concern of families and members of the public following this grievous event. We humbly ask that the public and media be patient with the difficult and ongoing rescue and recovery exercise. We will continue to issue progress updates.
An unknown number of construction workers were believed to be trapped in the rubble as efforts to rescue them continue.
St Johns Ambulance supplied oxygen to those trapped inside as county bulldozers carefully dug the rubble to find survivors.
The owner of the building, whose ground floor was partly occupied, is said to be based in Nairobi. Police were looking for him last evening.
Survivors on Thursday tearfully recounted their miraculous escape from the collapsed building.
Irene Akinyi, who was among the construction workers, had stepped out to buy a soft drink when she heard blocks tumbling down.
“At first, I thought it was short circuiting, but when the concrete blocks and other materials began to tumble down, I ran for my life,” a visibly shaken Ms Akinyi told the Nation.
She said a number of people, including three children and her colleagues, did not make it out of the building.
Oliver Okudo, another construction worker, said he was shocked by a sudden tremor that sent him sprawling on the dust and rubble.
“I somehow found myself on top of the heap of sand and immediately sprinted to safety. When I was sure that the building was no longer crushing down, I went back to help with rescue efforts,” he said, estimating the number of workers on site before the collapse at around 60.
The ill-fated building was the second in less than six years to collapse at the same site, which is regarded as a water-catchment area.
A worker, a Mr Otieno, told the Nation that together with his colleagues, he spotted a crack on the building awhile back, but did not think much of it.
“I was on the sixth floor with about 20 masons doing plastering when the building came down like a house of cards. When the dust cleared, I was lying on the ground, with stinging pain in the chest,” he said.
Mr Otieno was taken to Ram Hospital.
Six children were also rescued from the site and taken to hospital.
A Form One student was on the balcony of his apartment when the building collapsed.
Thankfully, he and his younger brother and sister escaped unhurt.
Their mother had gone to an hair salon when the incident occurred.
She was too shocked to talk to journalists who visited the hospital.
The National Construction Authority was earlier preparing a preliminary report on the incident following reports that it had been marked for demolition.
South Nyanza Regional NCA Coordinator Lucas Adwera said the report would be made public once ready.
The NCA last evening confirmed that the construction of the building had been suspended twice over the past one year after it exceeded the number of floors it had been allowed.
NCA Communication Officer Wangui Kabala said compliance officers found out in November last year that the owner had not complied with the three storeys he had been permitted.
“The Authority can confirm the collapsed structure was registered as a project. However, after our compliance officers discovered during the routine quality assurance exercises that the developer had exceeded the number of floors in the approved plans, the construction works on the site were immediately suspended. This was in November 2015,” the officer said in a statement.
After work resumed against NCA directions, the authority once again suspended further works last July.
“The developer continued despite the suspension, prompting another closure notice which suspended works on the site yet again in July 2016,” the officer added.
Kisii and Nyamira Governors James Ongwae and John Nyagarama, respectively, and county commissioner and police heads visited the scene.
“Our emergency services team is working round the clock to ensure that the injured receive treatment as soon as they are rescued from the building,” said Mr Ongwae.
Mr Nyagarama said he had instructed his staff to assist in the rescue efforts by providing vehicles and other logistics support.
Kisii County Commissioner Kula Hache appealed to residents to stay away from the area to allow rescue efforts to proceed smoothly.
“We are concerned about the safety of people in this zone since the ground seems to be unstable and we are appealing to curious citizens to avoid coming here in order to allow rescue efforts to run without any further incidents,” said Ms Hache.
Nyaribari Masaba MP Elijah Moindi, who was in the governor’s office when the apartment building collapsed, also visited the scene and sent a message of condolence to the families of the bereaved while wishing survivors a quick recovery.
The leaders were in consultations before leaving for a security meeting at Ikorongo on the Narok-Kisii border when the tragedy struck. They had also planned to distribute relief food and other essential supplies
Kisii Deputy Governor Joash Maangi sent a message to newsrooms condoling with the families of the dead as well as the survivors.
He called for a speedy investigation and prosecution of those culpable.
Additional reporting by Magati Obebo, Collins Omulo and Nyaboga Kiage.