Chief Fire Officer says someone might have forgotten to cover fuel tank prior to Nakumatt Downtown fire

BY FRED MAKANA

NAIROBI, KENYA: The generator that was being used at Nakumatt Downtown Supermarket before a fire tragedy in 2009 was new a court has been told.

Gilbert Gathima who was in charge of the maintenance of the generator told Nairobi Chief Magistrate Kiarie Waweru that the generator that was in use at the supermarket had been installed few weeks before the tragedy. “A new Volvo Banta generator was installed by Ryce Motors in early January but I was not there when it was being installed,”Gathima told the court.

However, the then Chief Fire Officer at the City Council of Nairobi Danson Makau informed court that according to preliminary findings, the directorate of public works concluded that the problem might have emanated during a changeover from electricity to generator power. “I surveyed the room and went upstairs, I concluded that may be somebody forgot to close the tank of the generator or fuel vapour might have come into contact with the exhaust pipe of the generator during the changeover causing too much heat and fire eventually,” Makau said

The witness told court that on the fateful day, there was a power blackout for 10 seconds at 10.30 after which the generator started off as normal “I went to the generator room on the ground floor to check on fuel level and other operations when I realised the diesel had dropped to 13 percent as shown on the electronic display of the generator that is when I decided to add the diesel,” Gathima told court.

He informed the court that the diesel for refuelling the generator was kept in 200 litres two metallic drums that were kept outside the generator cabin. Before the tragedy the witnesses said one of the drums was full while the other had less than half of the fuel. On further questioning by State Counsel Daniel Karuri on whether the drums were fire-proof, Gathima said they were not but was the only place the diesel was stored. He said the diesel was pumped manually into the generator even while running as there was no danger. “I pumped approximately 40 litres of diesel after which I closed the tank of the generator and went back to the packing section of the supermarket for other duties,” he said.

The witness said it was usual for a blackout to occur for 10 seconds whenever there was a changeover from electric power to the generator one before or after a power blackout. He said during the changeover nothing unusual happened until power resumed at 2.30 pm.

Gathima said he sensed danger as he was passing through Kimathi lane when he saw smoke coming out of the radiator duct of the generator even after power had resumed. “Under normal circumstance the radiator duct is supposed to emit hot air so when I saw smoke I called the clerk Mr. Mbugua and informed him that something was wrong,” Gathima said

On seeing the smoke, he immediately rushed to the generator cabin and saw milk crates that were leaning on the gladiator duct burning. He said the duct was emitting flames which prompted the witness and other colleagues who had arrived to use fire extinguishers to put off the fire “We tried to extinguish the fire but we were overwhelmed as the fire was too much for us to bear,” he said. The witness said he rushed to the fire alarm located on the receiving section of the supermarket via the receiving exit on the ground floor. On further inquiry by State Counsel on the presence of gas cylinders on the staircase of the building, the witnesses said he saw the cylinders but did not see them catch fire.

The hearing of what might have caused the January 28, 2009 tragedy that killed 29 people continues on Tuesday.

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Downtown Supermarket fire Gilbert Gathima