More than 100 people were killed in a petrol fire and 160 others needed hospital treatment in Nairobi on Monday.
In one of Kenya’s deadliest tragedies, villagers scooping petrol from storm drains were killed after the fuel exploded into flames.
The petrol came from a leak on the bypass between the Mombasa-Nairobi and Nairobi-Eldoret pipelines.
Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) said its engineers shut down the main Mombasa pipeline, through which fuel is transported from the Coast to storage depots upcountry, when the leak was detected.
But storm water from the rains in the city on Monday morning, managing director Selest Kilinda said, swept the spilt fuel through storm drains into Ngong River, on the banks of which the slum is located.
Villagers rushed to scoop the fuel gushing from the storm drains. An explosion shortly after 9am blew off manhole covers, sent rivers of fire streaking into the slum and killed many slum dwellers, many charred beyond recognition.
KPC said due to blocked sewer lines, the built-up pressure started ripping out manholes covers, blowing them away one after the other in the direction of the source of the leakage.
Engineers poured foam to prevent fire from spreading back to the pipeline, but that did not save the village of Sinai Lunga Lunga whose residents are now in mourning.
Mr David Kania, a mechanic who was working at a nearby garage, was one of the first persons to arrive at the scene and helped in the rescue efforts. He drove three of his neighbours, whom he named only as Mama Murugi, Karanja and Karani, to Kenyatta National Hospital.
All had been burned as they tried to save children trapped in shacks.
“It was like hell,’’ he said, comparing the flames to what he has seen in movies about the Hiroshima nuclear bombing.
The fire burned an area the width of a football pitch and nearly a kilometre along the river bank.
Firefighters and rescuers had a hard time accessing the slum as there are no roads.
Victims told harrowing stories of losing loved ones and miraculous ones of survival.
One man survived because the fire started shortly after he went to fetch a jerrican to scoop fuel, but lost his six-year daughter whom he had left in the house.
Another man survived because he was woken up by shouts of people calling others to fetch free fuel and left his house just before it went up in flames.
Mr Ngei Kimalu, 43, who has lived in the slum since 1986 said his 22-year-old son, Kimwelu Ngei, is missing.
Mr Francis Amache, 21, said his brother, 16-year-old Owen Amache, is missing.
Among the missing persons are pupils from a private school in the slum known as Jamaica Academy.
Ms Jennifer Otieno, 50, a mother of three who sells food in the slum, said her granddaughter couldn’t be found.
She identified her as Vivian Achieng, 8, a Class Two pupil.
“I prepared her in the morning and saw her off to school but I haven’t seen her since,’’’ said Ms Otieno at the scene more than five hours after the fire started.
River of bodies
Another pupil, John Juma, 9, was hit by a vehicle as he ran away from the fire, his mother Judith Auru, 26, said. However, he was not seriously injured.
The school had two streams of up to 50 pupils each from Baby Class to Class 4.
Most of the dead were burned to ashes. Hundreds others were rushed to hospitals around Nairobi.
The scene of the fire was strewn with bodies of people and domestic animals.
The dead lay in the twisted iron sheets that were once their abodes. Other bodies floated in the river into which people had jumped in a vain bid to escape the fire. Witnesses spoke of a river of fire as the petrol was floating on the water.
There were two different accounts of the cause of the inferno. While some of the survivors said the petrol from the pipeline came with the fire, others said it was lit by a man smoking a cigarette.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who was among top government officials who visited the scene, said there was a loose casket in the pipeline which caused the leak.
Police said 75 people were killed but Nairobi Town Clerk Philip Kisia said fire fighters had counted more than 100 bodies. The Nation reporters and photographers also counted more than 100 bodies.
In February 2009, 120 people were burned to death as they fetched fuel from a petrol tanker which had overturned at Sachang’wan trading centre on the Nakuru-Eldoret highway.
On Monday, at least 10 bodies lay at the manhole where KPC discharges waste into the river.
Pigs and cattle belonging to a farmer who is said to have perished in the fire were also killed.
Mr George Mwangi, who was feeding pigs at the site of the fire, said slum dwellers were used to fetching contaminated diesel drained by KPC at the river “but this time round the company discharged the highly flammable super petrol”.
Mr Mwangi ran for his life when the fire started but his child was among the missing.
Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi said his ministry was sorry following the disaster and that thorough investigations would be done to determine the cause of the fire.
Mr Odinga said 160 people had been taken to various hospitals.
The PM said the government would cater for the medical expenses of those injured while KPC would compensate families which lost their loved ones.