58 schoolchildren die in Kenya fire

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Police suspect arson was the cause of a fire that swept through a crowded secondary school dormitory early on Monday, killing 58 boys and seriously injuring another 28.

Police suspect arson was the cause of a fire that swept through a crowded secondary school dormitory early on Monday, killing 58 boys and seriously injuring another 28.

"We have a strong suspicion of arson. There was a smell of petrol yesterday," police spokesman Peter Kimanthi said outside the charred walls of one of two dormitories at Kyanguli Secondary School near Machakos, a farming town 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

There were unconfirmed reports that a student was seen running from the dormitory shortly before the fire broke out.

Kimanthi said 130 boys between the ages of 15 and 19 had been sleeping in the building.

He said officials at the provincial secondary school for boys smelled gasoline in the dormitory on Sunday, checked it but found nothing. He said a police forensics team would investigate.

Mackenzie Waema, 19, a student who was sleeping in the other dormitory about 100 meters (330 feet) away said gasoline had been spread throughout the other building, and it was burning in the center of the dormitory when he was awoken by screams and pounding noises.

"There was a misunderstanding between the administration and the students. They (the students) had grudges. Some of the students don't have good relations with the teachers. That could have brought this calamity," he said.

At Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi where nine of the injured students were taken, Peter Wanyoro, father of Jacob Wanyoro, 16, who suffered burns over 90 percent of his body, said his son had told him that the students had been planning to march to the district education office in Machakos Friday to protest conditions at the school, but teachers and school guards stopped them.

"I don't know if this is the reason why they were burned. Boys who survived said some of their colleagues went to the dormitory with petrol in small jerrycans," he said.

Police struggled to keep a crowd of several thousand away from the dormitory built of blocks of volcanic tuff whose corrugated iron roof that had been supported by wooden thrusts collapsed shortly after the fire broke out.

Looking through the building's 10 windows, all of which were covered by iron bars that prevented escape, reporters counted 48 bunk beds in a building that measures approximately 40 meters by 15 meters (132 feet by 50 feet). No school officials were available to comment how 96 beds could accommodate 130 boys.

Waema said one of the dormitory's two doors was always kept open; the other was padlocked. Those who managed to escape the fire did so through the open door. The flames in the middle of the building prevented those at the other end where the door was locked from getting to the open door.

Several piles of bodies could be seen inside the building.

Provincial police commanding officer Wellington Choka said the fire was reported at 1:40 a.m. (2240gmt) and had apparently broke out 20 minutes earlier during a thunderstorm. He said the fire brigade had not been summoned, and police using the school's garden hoses as well as the heavy rain eventually put out the fire.

Most of Kenya's secondary school students attend boarding schools, either government–run or private. Disputes over mishandling of school funds, lack of facilities and quality of food and accommodation are common.

It is not uncommon for boarding school students to wreck buildings and classrooms to protest corruption among school officials whom they accuse of stealing money paid for their fees.

"We take our kids to boardings bcause we think that's where they will concentrate properly with their education, but then we fail to take care of their security," Peter Wanyoro said.

In March 1998, more than 20 girls burned to death in a secondary school fire near Kenya's Indian Ocean port of Mombasa. They had been locked inside the school by the management.

On March 5, a fire caused by an overturned kerosene lantern killed 23 girls sleeping in the locked dormitory of a school in northern Nigeria.