Kenyans grapple with sting of death

Published on 30/01/2009

By Cyrus Ombati, Maseme Machuka and Morton Saulo

In silence, faces awash with shock, fear and trepidation recovery teams picked up blackened skulls and bones among other remains of victims of the Wednesday fire tragedy.

They pasted labels as one would specimens in a forensic lab in the awesome task to which the President and the Vice-President, too, stood witness, as were the ordinary people on the sidewalks of adjoining buildings.

President Kibaki (second right) and Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka are briefed by Police commissioner Hussein Ali at the scene of death, yesterday. Left, is Gender Minister Esther Murugi. Photo: Stafford Ondego/Standard

They then gently placed them on white sheets, and carted them to waiting cars for the journey to the mortuary for the arduous task of identification through DNA testing.

The third day’s last count in the evening stood at recovery of 25 bodies. All around hung the acrid smell of the fire, along with all that it consumed, and continued to even as the recovery effort progressed, through the felling of hanging walls, scooping of the debris and rummaging for human remains.

Rising body count

As darkness approached, the remains of a couple that perished in the fire had been identified as well as those of two Nakumatt employees.

It was like watching a motion picture of people walking on a minefield – the highly trained team had to work meticulously and with precision. With smoke still billowing, there was a chance one of the gas cylinders buried in the debris could blast away yet another life. In their minds they knew the body count could still rise to 47 – the number of missing persons relatives and friends reported to Kenya Red Cross.

Relatives of the missing watched from a distance, eyes filled with tears and too stunned and numbed by silence. They could just wish they could know now and then if it were their missing relatives, if only to end the fear of the unknown.

A pile of bodies were retrieved from the first floor of the furnace that was Nakumatt Downtown Supermarket, rekindling memories of their excruciating final moments.

Even in death they seemed bound by the chain of their luckless day when a stroll down the supermarket isles turned out to be the last chapter of their lives.

It mattered not the race, sex and age – fire and fumes just throttled the life out of them leaving their loved ones to wail in grief.

By nightfall, with sections of the building yet to be accessed, even as smoke continued to rise lazily to the skies, recovery teams resigned to the fact it could be days before they could plough through what was left of the prestigious branch that opened round the clock.

The pile of bodies were found in one corner of the upper floor of the supermarket that served as the hardware, an indication they were all trying to use one exit after the fire broke out.

“We do not know if they are in there, but we have 47 names from relatives who say they are missing,” said KRC’s head Mr Abbas Gullet.

relatives break down

Kenya Red Cross officials were called inside with body bags to pick up the remains and place them at a safer place.

“They are badly burnt, you can see only the skulls, hands and a few ribs. The burns were severe and horrible,” said a KRC official.

As the news of the discovery of the bodies broke out relatives broke down and wept uncontrollably from outside demanding to be told the progress of the search.

They at one point threatened to break into a temporary barrier that had been built around the building after word went round that journalists were being ejected from the site.

The situation then normalised but remained emotionally charged, after journalists were allowed to the site.

Some of the relatives said they had spent their nights at the KRC tents with hopes the search would begin soon.

Police open file

“It is difficult but we cannot stay at home without knowing the fate of our parents,” said a man, who reported his parents missing.

The exercise began at about 9am on Friday with a team of doctors, engineers, police and KRC officials using the rear door to access the upper floor where survivors said they had left most of the missing persons.

Deputy Government pathologist Dr Jane Wasike led the experts in locating and picking up the remains as a mortuary attendant put them together.

The bodies were later wrapped in white and black body bags and taken to the city mortuary for preservation.

Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said the bodies would be preserved for further DNA analysis to identify them. “They are badly mutilated and it will take a technical analysis to identify them, which could take long,” said Kiraithe.

Two bulldozers were digging up the debris.

Other rescuers worked manually on the upper floor trying to locate the remains.

Kiraithe said investigation into the incident had been opened with a view to establishing if some of the guards tried to close the exits when the fire broke out.

He added a desk had been opened up at the Central Police Station to take statements from survivors and relatives on the incident.

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