'We saw the building sink slowly'

A five-storey building collapsed in central Nairobi on Monday with more than 280 construction workers inside, killing at least 11 people and injuring more than 70, witnesses and officials said.

An Associated Press reporter saw eight dead bodies at the construction site shortly after the collapse. Three additional people died while undergoing treatment, a hospital spokesperson said.

More than 70 seriously injured people were taken to Kenyatta General hospital, where six were in critical condition, said Dr Samuel Ngiru, who works in the trauma department.

“If we do not get more blood, people will die,” he said.

Dozens of rescuers dug into the rubble in downtown Nairobi with their bare hands while the injured were loaded into any available car to be taken to hospitals. A trapped person’s hand could be seen waving for help from under a concrete beam.

Tens of thousands of people ran to the site, clogging the roads and climbing on top of the rubble to watch the rescue.
Riot police deployed to the area and beat back the crowds with truncheons, clearing roads for emergency vehicles.

At the same time, police appealed for anyone with emergency training to come to the scene and help the rescue effort. Kenyatta General hospital issued a public appeal for residents to donate blood.

By nightfall, most of the onlookers had gone home. Professional rescuers set up lights and began digging for trapped survivors at five different places around the building. Meanwhile, a large bus with apparently failed brakes crashed through the medical triage area, injuring one medic and slamming into a parked ambulance.

Earlier, Health Minister Charity Ngilu had appealed for calm and patience.

“We have doctors and health workers who have been mobilised, so it is now under control,” she said at the scene.

One construction worker said 280 men had been on the site.

Another of the workers, who would not give his name, said an inspector had warned last week that the structure was not safe and they were trying to stabilise the building.

“We saw the building sink slowly and then sway from side to side. As we saw this, we fled the area. We never got that far—it collapsed,” said Serengo Wekesa, who had been working at a neighbouring building.

Wekesa said several women had set up stalls inside the building to sell food to construction workers and that they had their children with them. Ngiru, the doctor, said that a two-year-old boy was among the injured.

One worker, James Ofunyi, said the workers were on their lunch break, with many asleep in the building when it collapsed.

“I was taking a nap after having had lunch when I heard someone shouting to run, but I didn’t get downstairs fast enough because the building started falling,” Ofunyi said. “I jumped to the other side.”

Immediately after the collapse, hundreds of people formed lines to carry away chunks of concrete and wooden scaffolding, which a front-loader then pushed away from the site. Dozens of soldiers, firefighters, police officers and Kenya Red Cross workers responded to the collapse, using crowbars and metal cutters to free those trapped.

“This is all about building standards,” said Kenyan Army Brigadier George Kyaka, who was leading the military response. “But those who are alive are the priority now.”

He said he had seen five people pulled out alive.

Associated Press reporters and a photographer saw two survivors being pulled from the building more than an hour after the collapse, prompting the crowds to erupt in cheers. But there were fears that more people were caught between the floors that collapsed on top of one another.

The lower floors of the building were filled with construction workers, while work was under way to add additional upper floors when it collapsed, Patrick Opiyo (26) said as he dug for survivors. Parts of the exterior walls were still standing, presenting a hazard to rescuers.

Vice-President Moody Awori visited the scene to check on the rescue effort.

“It is very important that we put in place mechanisms to ensure that only properly designed buildings are built,” Awori said, declining to say anything further to reporters.

Most of injuries occurred during the building collapse, but some were injured during the stampede that followed, when Nairobi’s normally crowded streets turned into chaos, Ngiru said.

Evans Omolo, an 11-year-old boy, was knocked to the ground and trampled.

“I was coming home from school when I heard a whoosh and people started running, and I was pushed over,” he said, clutching his broken arm at the hospital. “I couldn’t see what was happening, but people were jumping on me as they ran past.”—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Anthony Mitchell and Patrick Majute contributed to this report

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