Scores of people are dead or missing in Kenya’s Rift Valley after an overturned petrol tanker caught fire and exploded.
As rescuers scoured a burnt forest near the crash scene last night the death toll had passed 113, with many more people from the nearby town of Molo missing. Many victims were incinerated in what witnesses called a fireball after a large crowd had approached the spill to collect free fuel.
Scorched cars and charred clothing littered the road where the blaze had scattered the crowd. A mother who was searching for her two sons at the scene of the explosion said several hundred people had run to the tanker to collect petrol.
“I tried to stop them but they did not listen,” she said, weeping as she looked through unidentified remains on the roadside. “They told me everyone is going there for the free fuel.”
The tanker had swerved off the road on Saturday night and turned on its side, spilling fuel across the road. Charles Kamau, 22, was approaching Molo when he saw the road was blocked by hundreds of people carrying jerry cans, plastic buckets and bottles, anything to carry fuel. Then he saw flames shooting up. “Everybody was screaming and most of them were running with fire on their bodies; they were just running into the bush.”
Mr Kamau, who works at a nearby orphanage, abandoned his car along with his companion, a 10-year-old boy. “I just ran to where there was no fire,” he told reporters. Nearby hospitals were overwhelmed by serious burns victims from what is one of Kenya’s worst national disasters. Authorities were having serious problems identifying many of the charred corpses because some had been burnt beyond recognition. Some survivors complained that they had had to sleep on the floor in crowded wards. The Red Cross was setting up temporary camps to treat the injured, and 30 victims were airlifted to the capital, Nairobi.
The latest disaster has provoked fresh anger in the east African nation at the allegedly slow response of emergency services, coming only three days after a supermarket blaze in Nairobi killed at least 30 people.
Deadly fuel fires of this kind are relatively common in Nigeria, where pipes are often tapped by desperate scavengers, but are almost unheard of in Kenya. For many Kenyans, the promise of free fuel in the middle of a looming famine was too much to resist. The country is beset by long-term drought and food shortages compounded by political infighting and a series of government corruption scandals. Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga visited the scene of the Molo fire yesterday morning and said the disaster was a “terrible blow to the nation”. He told reporters at hospital in Nakuru, near Molo: “Poverty is pushing our people into doing desperate things just to get through one more day.”
One year on from the post-election violence that swept Kenya, the country is ruled by a fragile coalition, and politicians on both sides of the power- sharing government have been quick to blame the others for a poor response to the disasters.
At least three policeman were reported to be among the dead after they had tried to control the crowd surging towards the tanker. A reporter from the Kenyan Nation newspaper claimed that the fire burnt unchecked for two hours before emergency services reached the scene. The Kenyan fire brigade said that it took one hour for them to reach the blaze; Molo has no fire engine.