Tragedy as 8 pupils perish in inferno

By Evelyne Kwamboka in Asumbi, Homabay

Eight students were burned alive inside their dormitory after it caught fire and were unable to run to safety because the door to the hostel was locked from outside.

Witnesses said the young girls St Theresa’s Asumbi Girls Boarding Primary in Homabay County, screamed  for help as the inferno raged but there was no rescue nearby at the school managed by Catholic nuns.

It was not immediately clear as to why the pupils were locked up as the tragedy visited the school only two weeks after Education ministry banned holiday tuition.

The ninth victim, who was rescued by villagers from the fierce fire, was rushed to Homabay District Hospital in a critical condition.

Initial investigations pointed at a tree which fell on an electricity line before the fire started.

The girls who had retired to bed were burnt beyond recognition as their colleagues in an adjacent dormitory scampered for safety for fear of losing their lives in a fire that started shortly after 8PM.

The burned dormitory had its windows grilled with wire mesh and did not have emergency exit.

During the incident, tens of locals responded to the girls’ distress calls and forced their way into the institution after the watchman at the gate declined to open for them, only to find the dormitory door locked from outside with a padlock.

“The dormitory was on fire, we broke the padlock and one girl managed to come out burning and she collapsed on reaching outside. She was rushed by an ambulance to Homabay District Hospital,” said William Otieno, one of the first people to arrive at the scene.

George Owino a villager, said three of the girls died on one bed, two bodies were lying on the floor and the others in a corner near the door.

“It is like the girls were rushing to the door but were overwhelmed by the fire. We started using buckets to put off the inferno before a fire engine arrived from Kisii town,” Owino said.

Policemen later arrived at the scene and kicked Owino and the other villagers out of the school compound, moments after 72 girls who survived were taken to the teachers quarters.

Relatives and friends rushed to the institution from areas such as Kisumu, Kisii, Nyamira and Kericho to know their daughters’ fate but were not allowed inside the compound.

Sitting in groups, anxious parents sat in groups as they waited for a word from the school management in vain.

“The school management has refused to tell me whether my sister is alive. It is 4am and they have locked us outside here since 9.30PM when we arrived from Kisii,” said Joseph Mokaya whose sister was pupil.

The Standard learnt class six and seven pupils reported to school for tuition classes last Friday, while those in class eight returned  from a Nairobi tour on Saturday and continued with their tuition.

“I called the school early last week and was told to just send my daughter Sandra Ngala to school despite the ban. She used to sleep in the same dorm where eight girls died,” said a mother who traveled from Awendo, only to find the girl among those who died.

The incident brought back memories of Bombolulu Girls in Mazeras and Machakos’s Kyanguli Boys Secondary schools where students perished in the dormitories, forcing the government to come up with guidelines.

“How could they lock the girls inside the dormitory? The windows had grills, making it difficult for the small angels to escape,” said Rose Anyango a shocked local who rushed to the school.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Raila Odinga has sent condolences to the parents, the families and relatives of the children who perished in the inferno.
Said Raila: "News of children perishing in fire at Asumbi Boarding School is traumatizing indeed. I wish to pass condolences to the families, the school and the Catholic Church fraternity over this tragedy."

The PM said the institution has done an excellent work in the past preparing young pupils for high school education and future positive role in society.

"This tragedy is therefore a real blow to the parents who were hoping that their children would emerge with good results in the coming exams. I ask the Ministry of Education and the provincial administration to get to the bottom of this tragedy and present a comprehensive report to the nation."

He said the parents affected must also be given necessary assistance as they struggle to come to terms with this loss. The ministry must prepare to do counseling to students who will naturally be traumatized by this tragedy.