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Heroic people who made Huruma rescue a success

By Graham Kajilwa | May 11th 2016 | 4 min read
By Graham Kajilwa | May 11th 2016

She was not bothered by the heavy rains that messed up her hair, which was only partly hidden under a police cap.

She was not able to answer my questions without interruption from someone among the hundreds craving for her attention at Daima Primary, which housed the homeless victims of the Huruma building collapse.

Meet Mariam Doka, the selfless chief who dipped her hands in blood and still wiped her sweat with them, while saving those who were stuck in the debris of the collapsed seven-storey building.

"It is not an easy job. If one does not have the heart to serve, then he or she cannot survive," she said.

Ms Doka said she had never seen such a scene in her entire life as a public servant.

"I carried people bleeding with my own hands getting them to the ambulance. I just found myself assessing and giving instructions on where they should be taken between Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), Mama Lucy and Huruma dispensary," she said.

crying Mothers

She later spent sleepless nights camping with the survivors at Huruma Social Hall: "Mothers are crying, children are wailing but you can do very little to help," she said.

She recalled a woman begging her to direct rescuers to the spot where her house was in order to save her brother.

"I had to call anyone I knew with knowledge in counselling to talk to them. They would not eat or drink and their eyes were on me," she said.

Doka was not the only one who sacrificed all to save lives at the disaster scene. John Mwangi, a member of the Sonko Rescue team of Mathare North, was also at hand to help. He compared the magnitude of the tragedy and the confusion that accompanied it to the Sinai fire tragedy.

"I became some type of youth leader co-ordinating the situation," he said.

He helped ferry nine people to KNH and three others to Mama Lucy on the first night.

He also made another 40 forty agonising trips to the City Mortuary to ferry bodies.

Nduku Wambua, a volunteer, was also helping out in her own small way. She was tasked with co-ordinating 50 women to cook for over 600 people.

These included members of 208 households, volunteers and police officers. "We fought, disagreed but we still had to work together. I think we may even start a chama of some sort," she said yesterday.

Her team worked in shifts; from 5am to 2pm then 2pm to 11pm: "I have a family but I have had to sacrifice everything to make someone's life bearable."

The first batch of food prepared on Friday was bought from their own pockets before donations started trickling in.

Another women's group under the leadership of Florence Magiri (of Huduma Kitchen from Maendeleo ya Wanawake in Mathare) brought in firewood and utensils to help in preparing food.

"We even prepared milk and porridge for children whose parents were missing or their mothers were too stressed to breast feed," she said.

But there were also big players in the rescue effort. For Incident Commandant Pius Masai from the National Disaster Management Unit (NDMU), losing a survivor in an ill-equipped ambulance was one his his worst nightmares.

"We cannot work tirelessly only to lose a survivor to on her way to hospital," said Mr Masai.

His officers who comprised Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) army men, Administration Police, National Youth Service service men and regular police were working in shifts of eight to twelve hours: "The longest time I ever rested was three hours."

KDF personnel were the only ones who worked 24 hours under the leadership of Brigadier David Ngaira and Lt Col Joseph Maritim and by 6am on Sunday left no stone left unturned. "We have equipment of international standards and officers trained in Israel so there was no need to call for help outside," said Brigadier Ngaira.

pancake-type collapse

The brigadier said the pancake-type collapse of the building was their biggest challenge: "We were forced to use sniffer dogs and drill tunnels to reach out to survivors and this took time."

This was the case when a pregnant survivor, Elizabeth Odhiambo, was spotted on Thursday at 11:22am but was pulled out at 3:15pm.

Due to the thick cement dust and the suffocating stench of decomposing bodies, the army men had to drink a litre of milk every 12 hours.

But even before the men in uniform took over the exercise that lasted 166 hours (10 days), there were self-made heroes who had stepped in to save the day.

One such hero was 11-year-old Griffins Otieno who shouted to alert tenants of a "huge earthquake". "I only came to learn later that the building had actually sunk in the river."

It is this Nairobi River that saved his life sustaining just bruises to his neck and hands when he was urged to jump in it as the building came tumbling down. Unfortunately, seven of his relatives perished in the incident.

It was 11 days of blood, sweat and tears but they braced it all. The heroes and heroines spent sleepless nights searching for lost souls tombed in the debris of the collapsed building.

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