Nearly 50 missing in Kenya blaze

Forty-seven people are missing and an unknown number died when fire destroyed a supermarket in downtown Nairobi two days ago, the Kenya Red Cross and witnesses said today.

The blaze gutted a large store of Nakumatt, the east African nation's leading supermarket chain, on Wednesday afternoon when shoppers and staff were inside, but rescuers did not know at the time how many people had died.

Local media said the capital's fire-fighting service was inadequate and firefighters had arrived at the scene too late and in too small numbers, and were hindered by fears that the building might collapse.

Reporters at the scene today said rescuers were finding charred corpses in the embers of the still-smouldering store.

Nation media house said at least 10 bodies had been found, but Reuters reporters and rescuers could not verify that.

The Red Cross confirmed only one death.

"One man died from injuries when he jumped from the second floor of the building," spokesman Titus Mung'ou said, adding that the number of missing stood at 47 by mid-morning.

Several people leapt from the building while it blazed for hours on Wednesday, witnesses said. Some spoke of people trapped and screaming behind locked doors.

"I came running because I knew my mum was shopping there," Ishmael Abdul Mohamed told Reuters amid a knot of angry people watching the rescue operation today.

"They ordered all doors closed, no one to enter or leave. I was trying to break the window with a dustbin because my mum and my sister were trapped inside but someone cocked a gun at me."

Nakumatt managers denied any doors were locked at the time of the blaze during a news conference today.

A company spokeswoman, Catherine Karanja, could not give an overall death toll but said five of 103 staff had not been located. "We are still investigating the cause," she said.

Nakumatt said in a statement its store "was fully fire safety compliant and had been installed with advanced fire/smoke detectors."

One survivor, Jeremiah Omoyo, said he had jumped off the roof to escape. "The crowd below was telling us to jump," the Nakumatt employee told the local Standard newspaper.

"I jumped, but cannot tell what happened to the others who were screaming behind me," said Omoyo, who hurt his leg.

Kenyan media berated the emergency response as slow and inadequate. "A city like Nairobi with an estimated population of three million is served by one fire station situated close to the central business district where vehicular and pedestrian congestion is particularly heavy," the Daily Nation said.

"It is fair to say that ours is a modern city with an 18th century fire-fighting infrastructure."