Kenya mourns, frets over 131 dead in disasters

Kenya began a week of mourning on Monday for at least 131 people who died in a petrol tanker blaze and another fire in a Nairobi supermarket that have brought a torrent of criticism of poor disaster preparedness.

Flags flew at half-mast and official functions were put on hold as rescuers continued to pull charred bodies from both disaster sites and relatives hunted for missing people.

In one of Kenya’s worst accidents of recent times, at least 106 people died when a crowd scrabbling for free fuel crowded round a tanker that crashed near central Molo town on Saturday.

A cigarette set off the blaze, engulfing the crowd in flames, and also leaving nearly 200 people injured.

In Nairobi, a supermarket burned down on Wednesday, but it was only days later that the scale of the disaster became clear, with 25 corpses pulled out and two dozen more still missing.

“President Mwai Kibaki has declared one week of national mourning,” said a government statement. “All official functions and celebrations have been put on hold for the whole week.”

Kenyans have lambasted the response to both disasters, saying authorities were unprepared and late. Witnesses spoke of locked fire doors at the Nakumatt supermarket, and hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of dead and injured near Molo.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga said the image of poor Kenyans dying as they scrabbled in the road for fuel under darkness on Saturday was an indictment of the state of the nation.

“Poverty is pushing our people into doing desperate things just to get through one more day,” he said, visiting victims of the Molo blaze.
“There was no response by any disaster team because there is no such team.”

In hospitals, the injured shared beds or lay on floors.

“I saw a wave of fire and before I knew it, my face and leg were burning,” said Simon Mwangi (22) in Molo district hospital.

“I tried to remove my trousers but they were stuck to my skin. That is all I remember until I woke up in this hospital.”

Most officials said a cigarette caused the Molo blaze.

Some witnesses said a man angered at being stopped by police from scooping petrol threw a cigarette butt on the ground deliberately. Police were demanding bribes, some said, though authorities have denied that.

“The disaster once again exposed the level of disaster unpreparedness across the country,” Kenya’s leading newspaper, the Daily Nation, said in an editorial. “Watching top government officials making frantic efforts to get the injured to hospitals in Nakuru and Molo was a study in logistical deficiency.”

The cause of the Nairobi supermarket fire remains unknown.

The East African newspaper said the Nakumatt disaster could easily occur anywhere across the region, given years of neglect and poor investment in disaster management.

“And, like in Nairobi, authorities across the region would be able to do very little to stop it,” it said.

“Nairobi’s inability to respond efficiently and effectively to these disasters is a major setback to its avowed objective of becoming a modern metropolis that is the regional finance and political capital.” - Reuters

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