I saw a woman on fire: Victims recall horrifying scenes in mid-night gas blast

Locals mill around the scene of fire incident at Mradi area in Embakasi Nairobi. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

The fire is said to have started and spread quickly through a gas plant and homes after a tanker driver lit a cigarette.

Among the 167 people who were injured were eight Kenya Defence Force officers who lived in the area.

Standard Team

Scores of people were injured in a massive explosion at a gas plant in Embakasi, Nairobi, on Thursday night.

Residents of Mradi, where the incident happened, described horrifying scenes of flying metal objects, including vehicle parts, gas cylinders and a shipping container, that left hundreds of residents with serious injuries.

Witnesses said a lorry loaded with gas cylinders exploded at about 11.30 pm, igniting a huge ball of fire that spread fast as more explosions, which could be heard many kilometres away, followed.

It emerged that the fire broke out due to the ignorance of the tanker driver who lit a cigarette and smoked with blatant disregard of caution.

“The fire went up in the sky and there was light all over. It spread and covered most parts of the estate. That was when everyone began to run seeking safety,” Andre Simiyu, a witness, said.

The fire raged through the estate, torching several businesses, including a go-down.

Another resident said an exploding gas cylinder flew over 200 metres, hitting the nearby go-down, that deals in garments and textiles, burning it down. 

Mradi residents decried what they termed outright negligence with which relevant authorities execute their mandates.

They faulted Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA) officials for not shutting down what they termed an illegal refilling shop.

In a statement, EPRA said it received three applications for the Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) storage and filling plant in Embakasi East. All applications received on March 19, 2023, June 20, 2023, and July 31, 2023, were rejected.

“The main reason for the rejection was the failure of the designs to meet the safety distances stipulated in the Kenya Standard,” EPRA said.

But residents said EPRA must take responsibility for what happened.

There is no denying that if EPRA denied them the licence, then the owners may have corrupted their way into getting one. Someone must be held to account,” said a resident who did not wish to be named.

On Friday, rescue agencies and disaster management teams, including Kenya Red Cross, Kenya Air Force, Kenya Police Service, G4S Security firm, November Rapid Response Team and Nairobi County, promptly responded to contain the situation. 

After several hours of coordinated efforts, the fire was contained around mid-morning. 

Deputy Inspector General of Police Douglas Kanja said: “The Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) is expected to complete investigations and submit a report within 14 days.”

Victims spoke of the horrific night as they fought to save their lives following the gas explosion.

Members of the local community worked hard to rescue those who had been trapped in their houses as thick smock enveloped their area.

The collective effort bore fruit as they broke window glasses and used ladders to help them get out to safety.

But that was the first hurdle. The slow response to take victims to hospital was another.

Even with the joint efforts by various response units, accessing hospitals proved a big hurdle for them.

At Mama Lucy Kibaki Hospital, seven patients arrived on motorbikes and another 10 in a matatu.

Some good Samaritans offered to transport victims in their vehicles to hospital. A few patients rode in ambulances.

A bus conductor, only identified as Makau who was among the sympathizers, said he took the initiative to save lives.

“I had parked my matatu after the day’s work but when I realized that ambulances were not enough, I decided to use the car to take the victims to hospital,” he said.

By 1 am Friday, Mama Lucy Kibaki Hospital emergency unit was a hive of activity as victims of the inferno began streaming in, with sirens of ambulances ferrying injured persons for medical care rent the air.

The screams from shocked children and women grew louder as some adults were caught off guard. And they writhed in pain.

The fact that the hospital was overwhelmed was evident as two or more patients were bundled into one bed.

Some were seen loitering in the parking bay while others had no option but to cool their already burnt backs on metal seats placed strategically at the waiting bay.

Mr Stephen Kiama, a resident, faulted the pre-hospital and initial attention to the injured at the facility.

“This facility can’t handle many casualties within a short time. We were referred to buy medicine outside,” Kiama said.

Anne Anyango said the route to seeking medical attention continues to prove difficult for those at the lower part of the social pyramid.

“I came here to be treated. However, when someone tells you to go and buy medicine somewhere else at 3am, it is like mockery. In the first place, there are no chemists operating at this hour,” Anyango said.

By 3.30 am, at least 167 people of which 142 were adults while were 25 school-going children had been booked for medical attention.

Eight of the 13 victims who were receiving treatment at Embakasi Garrison Medical Research Centre were Kenya Defence Force officers who lived in the area.

Nairobi County Health Executive Suzanne Silantoi yesterday said the high number of patients seeking services after the explosion contributed to a shortage of drugs.

Veronica Kerubo, a caregiver volunteer said: “What is worrying is that people are badly burned but they are being sent home. This is not right. We are asking for government’s intervention to save lives.”

But Silantoi said they only discharged those who had minor injuries. “We are committed to ensure everybody gets the care they deserve.”

Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja said he had waived treatment fees for all patients.

“I am announcing a complete waiver of all medical fees for victims being treated at Nairobi County government hospitals,” the said in a statement yesterday.

By Friday morning, Sakaja said, Mama Lucy Kibaki Hospital had treated 167 victims, comprising 142 adults and 25 children.

“Of this, 143 have been treated and discharged, their conditions having been determined as stable by the doctors. We have 24 patients who were critically injured and suffered more than 60 per cent burns, 17 have been referred to Kenyatta University Teaching, Referral and Research Hospital, and seven to Kenyatta National Hospital,” Sakaja said.

He said by morning yesterday, Mbagathi Hospital had received 35 patients, 15 of whom were referred to KNH. Another 20 patients had been discharged by 9:03 am.

Relatives of those wounded thronged health facilities and could be seen talking in low tones about what had befallen them.

Beatrice Muthoni blamed failed systems for the tragedy adding that corruption has always seen the culprits go free. “How many times have we lost lives in such a manner? Crimes go on as government officers watch,” she said.

Those who cheated death lived to tell the story of what transpired.

Moses Maina, who suffered burns, recounted the events of that night. He said he jumped from the first floor of their house and fell on a rock.

“I am now nursing leg and hand fractures and a head injury. I would rather live crippled than lose my life,” Maina said.

Kenneth Majani, a resident of the village, said the fire broke out at around 10.30 pm.

“I was in my room retiring to bed after a long day of work when I heard a loud explosion which shook the entire building. When I tried to get out, I was met with heavy smoke that clouded my way,” Majani said.

Anthony Kiama, a resident, said he was still on his way home when the incident occurred.

Thirty-five-year-old Jackline Karimi told the BBC she ran out of her house and lay flat on the tarmac, an action she said saved her life.

She suffered burns on the right hand up to the shoulder and right leg.

“I saw a woman on fire but we couldn’t help her. Everyone was running,” Jackline said adding she heard the woman later died from the injuries she had suffered.

When the first blast happened, Jackline said, the building’s caretaker frantically banged on doors and ordered residents out.

“People were screaming and others shouting ‘fire!’,” Jackline said. “The fire was igniting and burning whatever it found on the way.”

Maloba Sebe, who sustained burns on his hands, body and legs thanked God for being alive, saying; “The vaporizing gas ripped up the pavement, blowing up the house we live in. My wife was taken to Kenyata National Hospital and as we speak, she is in bad condition. My daughter is admitted at Kenyatta University Teaching and Referral Hospital,” Sebe said.  

Alfred Juma, a landlord in Mradi, sustained injuries on the back of his neck, hands, legs and cheek. He is one of those who were injured at the scene of the gas explosion.

“I was watching TV around 11 pm when one of my tenants called to inform me that there was a fire. It smelt like the leaking gas. That is when I started calling my tenants to come out of their houses,” he said.

Juma owns a house just opposite the gas shop. He said he witnessed as a car driver was blown up.

“The driver drove towards the scene of the gas leak. He ignored warnings from residents. But his car suddenly stopped, and then it blew up,” said Juma.

He added: “When I ran back, I saw two desperate children and as I tried to assist them, I also got burnt.”

Gated Skyline Estate was not spared. Rose Obonyo, a maintenance manager at the estate, said those
who stayed indoors were spared while those who went out to witness what was happening suffered injuries as they were hit by flying objects.

Rosemary Wangui, a landlady who owns 11-iron-roofed shanties, said her houses were also burnt down.

“A huge piece of metal fell on my house completely burning it and injuring six tenants. Now I have nothing left,” said Ms Wangui.

Philis Kerubo, who owned Baraka Stores mini supermarket, said she lost stock worth Sh500,000.

[Mike Kihaki, Modachi Okumu, Emmanuel Kipchumba, and James Wanzala]