Shame of second fire disaster within days

Published on 01/02/2009

By Steve Mkawale

The smell of burnt human bodies hang in the air. The victims lay side-by-side, limbs frozen in a state of flight, mouths open in anguished, if wordless cries.

They had died a painful death, 111 burned beyond recognition after a deadly chase for free petrol from a tanker that had overturned.

The 5.45pm accident on Saturday night at Sachang’wan, about 4km before Salgaa town on the Nakuru-Eldoret highway, had all the hallmarks of a mega disaster.

The heart-rending tales of phones that went unanswered because the owners had been incapacitated, or a mother’s tearful recollection of her last sight of a son clutching a jerrican, are the definitive moments of the tragedy.

In predictable style at road accidents, where passersby move in to help themselves to whatever they can find, word spread quickly that a tanker had tilted off the road in Sachangw’an, and oil was flowing freely.

Scramble for freebies

Barely an hour and a half later, more than 200 villagers assembled to scramble for the freebie.

In a flicker of an eye, 90 people lay dead – 51 killed in the trench where they were scooping the free flowing petrol.

The toll stood at 111 deaths last evening, and 178 seriously injured.

Rift Valley PC Hassan Noor Hassan and Kenya Red Cross officials had by yesterday morning counted 91 charred bodies at the scene.

Another 20 people were said to have succumbed to injuries at the Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital in Nakuru and other health facilities where volunteers rushed them.

The Standard team witnessed the counting of charred bodies at the scene on Saturday night after Nakuru Municipal Council firefighters put out the inferno.

There are different accounts about what triggered the inferno. Some villagers claim an argument arose over Sh100 bribe demanded by a General Service Unit (GSU) officer to allow access to the oil spill.

Disgruntled villager

Map of the scene of fire incident.

A disgruntled villager is said to have threatened to seek his revenge by lighting up the spill.

“I overheard him (the disgruntled man) tell the officer: “Kama mnanikataza kuchota mafuta, mtaona. (I will teach you a lesson if you don’t allow me to scoop some),” said Mr John Kamau who operates a taxi service in Molo town.

“The man must also have died in the fire,” Kamau claimed.

But police sources discounted the claim, saying the ten officers at the scene were overwhelmed by the mob, among whom was a man smoking, that demanded access to the spill.

Another version has it that one motorist forcibly pulled out the tanker’s nozzle, the oil splashed out and reached the smoking man.

Other sources said the man who had threatened to set the place ablaze was arrested and chained to a car, where he eventually died.

Handcuffed body

The fate of the alleged car owner could not be established although a handcuffed body was found in a vehicle’s burnt-out shell.

Another motorist who had also stopped at the accident scene to see what was going on was also burnt.

Armed security personnel watched from a safe distance as helpless, wailing villagers scampered for safety at the sound of explosions from the burning tanker.

Balls of fire could be seen from kilometres away, residents said, while others recounted being “followed by the fire” due to the inflammable fuels in their possession.

Charred body parts, vehicles, motorcycles, and bicycles reduced to shells were the clear signs of the mayhem that visited the villagers.

“There are more bodies in the forest of people who fled with petrol. It exploded in their hands when fire broke out,” said a traffic police officer, who was among the first people at the scene.

Soaked in petrol

“Their clothes were soaked in petrol and they could not escape when the fire broke out,” he said.

A group of children from a local school were said to be among the dead. Their driver had stopped their vehicle to find out what was happening at the scene.

At least 92 people, among them ten officers from the nearby GSU camp, were admitted to various hospitals in Nakuru, Rongai and Molo.

“More than 90 people have been taken to hospitals in Molo, Rongai and Nakuru. We have made arrangements for some to be transferred to Nairobi Hospital for specialised treatment,” said Mr Hassan.

The PC said three helicopters were provided to ferry the injured to the Intensive Care Unit in Nairobi as the provincial hospital had been overwhelmed.

Speaking at the scene, Public Health and Sanitation Minister Beth Mugo said the Government had flown in medical provisions from Nairobi to boost services.

“Most bodies at the scene were those of women and children who were drawing petrol from a roadside trench where the tanker had landed,” she said.

Another witness, Mr Michael Siele, said his brother, Peter Malakwen Kibenei, may have died in the fire.

“We arrived at the scene together but since I had nothing to carry the fuel, I rushed to Sachag’wan trading centre to look for one. Then I heard an explosion,” he said.

Can’t reach brother

Siele was among hundreds of relatives who kept vigil at the scene, waiting for police to collect the charred bodies.

“I cannot reach my brother on the phone and his wife keeps calling me,” he said amid sobs.

Ms Rose Koech, 47, said she last saw her son, Robert Cheruiyot, hanging from a matatu carrying a jerrican.

“I knew he was headed to the scene of the accident. I cannot find him. He must be among the dead,” said the mother of eight, as she stared at the charred bodies next to the smouldering tanker.

Rose moved from one body to another in search of her 23-year-old son.

Meanwhile, Kenya Red Cross officials have set up a tent where families whose relatives are missing could be helped and counselled.

“We have set up a tent and people from surrounding villages can come here and report their missing kin,” said an official.

The team stumbled on a teenager in the forest who had facial burns. They rushed him to hospital where doctors said he was stable, but still in shock.

Rift Valley PPO Joseph Ashimalla said they would conduct a headcount of officers to ascertain whether some may have perished in the fire.

Five loaded firearms were recovered at the scene, partly burnt, an indication that some officers, especially from the GSU camp, could have died.

“They were among the first people at the scene because their camp is only a few metres away,” said Mr Ashimalla.

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