Fire tragedy hits city’s supermarket

By Amos Kareithi

A thunderous explosion, a stinging blanket of smoke over Nairobi and wailing sirens completed a gloomy picture that enveloped the city.

From afar it looked like a complete meltdown of Nairobi’s Central Business District after one of its major 24-hour-service supermarkets was engulfed in a vicious inferno.

A policeman at the scene of fire that at Nakumatt Downtown supermarket in Nairobi Wednesday. Workers and shoppers escaped with minor injuries and property worth millions of shillings destroyed. [PHOTO: STAFFORD ONDEGO/STANDARD]

Within minutes Nakumatt Downtown, one of the supermarket chain’s city landmarks, was up in flames.

Screams and shouts rent the air as shoppers and workers scrambled out of the building. Some collapsed on the verandah and were led away from the raging flames.

Soon after the fire broke out at about 2.45pm, some workers and shoppers who had been trapped upstairs were seen jumping from the first floor of the building onto the street.

Smoke-filled spectacle

One survivor jumped through the windows and landed on top of a taxi parked below.

Occupants of the nearby Nation Centre, Victor House, Alibhai Shariff Building and CFCStanbic could be seen rushing out of the storeyed buildings as the fire spread fast from one corner of the supermarket to the other.

A large crowd, attracted to the scene by the smoke-filled spectacle, gathered around, keeping their distance, around the junction of Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue where the tragedy was playing itself out.

Police on horseback cracked whips to drive back the growing and surging crowd that sought to catch a glimpse of the raging orange tongues of fire furiously gutting down commodities at the double-storeyed store.

Anxiety, bewilderment and shock were etched on faces of by-standers who seemed transfixed as they witnessed the decimation of the shop they might have once visited.

Just on standby

And as the combined force of police, military and Nairobi City Council fire brigades tried to battle the raging inferno, a police helicopter roared overhead, hovering over the pall of smoke, closely monitoring the situation.

"As you can see we just watching for now. There is nothing we can do. We are just on standby in case somebody is injured. All people in the surrounding buildings have been evacuated," explained a St Johns Ambulance director who asked not to be named as he spoke unofficially.

"There have been some minor injuries but right now I can’t tell you how many. Those we rescued earlier on have been taken to hospital," the director explained.

As the volunteer talked, the crowd was startled by a series of ear shattering explosions, probably caused by exploding gas cylinders, which fanned the flames.

"This is a disaster area. All people not wearing helmets should clear out of here. We need people to push back for one square kilometer," shouted a firefighter from a hand-held loudspeaker.

But his command went unheeded by the crowd that kept on swelling.

Even as the man who was wearing a firefighter’s uniform shouted through the megaphone, further explosions rattled the place.

Internal security Minister George Saitoti, who arrived at the scene, surrounded by a plainclothes security detail, kept watch as the firemen fought the blaze.

The Police Commissioner too, Major General Hussein Ali, was an anxious figure as he paced up and down, his eyes never wandering too far from the fire.

Metropolitan Minister Mutula Kilonzo, under whose docket the aesthetics of the CBD fall, also showed up.

Hell broke loose

One Nakumatt employee, Kirima Kajogo shoved his hand in his pocket and whistled in disbelief on realising that his mobile phone was off.

"I was at the gift wrapping area when hell broke loose. One second I was bending down, the next I was being shoved out of the building. People were shouting fire! fire!"

Mr Kajogo recalled how he saw smoke billowing from where the generator is housed before he was violently shoved away.

"I panicked. There were so many people and everybody was trying to escape. I ran as fast as I could out of the area," he added.

It was while he was outside the building that he and his colleagues were instructed to proceed to Jevanjee Gardens, the fist assembly point.

The entire nation too came to a standstill as Kenya Television network (KTN) relayed live pictures of the crackling fire to all corners of the country.

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