Sachang’wan tragedy victims still traumatised a decade on

Ten years ago, an oil tanker exploded on the Nakuru-Eldoret highway, killing at least 130 people.

Tens of others were left traumatised, with serious burns and no help. 

Some of the survivors of the Sachang’wan oil tanker disaster recently spoke of the effect the tragedy continues to have on their lives.

Mark Maina, 45, had just returned home from selling potatoes on the Nakuru-Eldoret highway on January 31, 2009, at around 6.30pm. Shortly after an oil tanker veered off the road and rolled. He was among the people who rushed to scoop oil, but minutes later disaster struck — the tanker burst into flames.

“I died that evening. The Mark Maina who went to scoop free fuel that evening never returned, I’m not the same person,” said Mr Maina.

Psychiatric expert Joseph Njau said the victims might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Burn scars

Maina, who has burn scars on the legs, thighs and buttocks, did not attend the 10th memorial at the graveyard along the highway. He said post-traumatic stress has left him unwell.

“I wanted to attend the event but I wasn’t feeling up to it. I have never ever gone near the mass grave. Post-traumatic stress just wears me down.

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“I would have loved to go because I lost many friends in the tragedy — I had worked on the  highway selling fresh produce for a long time and I knew them all well,” he said.

A decade down the line, the father of four is forced to wear leggings and a pair of socks to keep warm because cold weather causes the wounds to itch.

The leggings too hold bandages that prevent the wounds from bleeding.

Maina, a small-scale farmer in Kibunja village, Molo, looks weak and in pain. He limps and at times cannot move at all, thanks to the injuries he sustained in the tragedy. He said the injuries have left him “unproductive”.

“I dress like a woman to keep warm. The wounds are so itchy during cold and hot weather. At times the wounds bleed causing me so much pain,” said Maina.

He broke down in tears as he recalled how he had scooped only 20 litres of the spilled fuel and handed it to a friend before all hell broke loose.

The aftermath of the explosion was devastating. Some died due to lack of oxygen, others succumbed to multiple burns while others died because of shock. Efforts to put out the fire by pouring foam on the petroleum-soaked scene proved futile.

Memories of the disaster are still fresh in his mind. He occasionally gets nightmares and wakes up drenched in sweat.

“There are times when I have nightmares; I scream a lot and wake up drenched in sweat,” he said.

He added: “I can equate the scene to an imaginary hell. People were burning and screaming for help but there was none. The scene was like a slaughter house,” he recalled

Maina was admitted to the Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital for nine months. He was discharged on a waiver after accumulating a bill of Sh1.5 million.

He spends Sh3,000 monthly on check-ups.

Micah Mokaya is yet to come to terms with the death of his wife Grace Nyaboke and son Justine Nyakundi who succumbed to injuries following the disaster.

Mokaya, a father of six, who has scars on his arms and face, claimed it was his wife who convinced him to go and scoop oil from the tanker. Prior to the Sachang’wan incident, his son had siphoned diesel from a truck that he sold at Sh5,000.

He was caught in flames and saw his wife and son die helplessly.

Multiple injuries

“My wife convinced me to go scoop oil from the tanker. I was reluctant but after she insisted, I gave in not knowing it was a disaster that would kill her and my son,” said Mokaya.

Mokaya and his wife had left their six-month-old baby at home. The child is now in Standard Five.

The victims interviewed said they have been neglected by the State; they are traumatised and cannot access health care despite the multiple injuries they sustained.

They have formed a self-help group known as Sachang’wan Tragedy Victims Group aimed at supporting each other financially and psychologically.

Each month, members contribute Sh100, to enable them venture into income-generating activities.

The group meets every Sunday at 2pm, to encourage each other.

“It is sad that victims cannot work for long because of itchy skin, orphaned children cannot access quality education and most victims require medical care, an issue that pushed us to form a self-help group,” said group chairman, David Wekesa.

St John’s Commissioner for Rift Valley region Pauline Akinyi admitted that the incident was the most traumatising accident she has ever witnessed along the highway.

Ms Akinyi said victims were left helpless because first responders and volunteers had no skills and knowledge to save lives.

“I must say Sachang’wan fire was the most traumatising tragedy because people were dying without much help. Very few people knew what to do. But we are happy we have equipped first aiders and volunteers on handling different tragedies,” she said.

Psychiatric expert Joseph Njau said the victims might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that reoccurs after a traumatic experience.

Psychosocial support

Dr Njau, who is attached to Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital, attributes post-traumatic stress disorder due to lack of psychosocial support triggered by stress and depression.

“People suffer after they visit the site of the tragedy, read or watch news about it,” he said.

To avoid it, he said victims should undergo counselling immediately a tragedy is reported.

“Anybody exposed to a traumatic experience suffers post-traumatic stress disorder that should be dealt with immediately an incident happens. It is worrying that most victims are not counselled,” said Dr Njau.

According to him, the Sachangwan fire victims might not have been taken through counselling after the tragedy.

He advised victims to visit plastic surgeons to determine better ways of managing the wounds and perhaps advise on the cream that can be applied to avoid discomfort.

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Psychiatric expert Joseph Njau