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Poor safety plans to blame for 2009 Nakumatt inferno that took 30 lives

The downtown building known as Woolworths was owned by a Mr Patel. Nakumatt had leased the building for 20 years from 1995. [Courtesy]

A Nakumatt fire that killed 30 people in 2009 did not have a human hand, but several critical fire protection and fighting blunders made a dire situation worse.

The fame of the once giant retailer, whose symbol was an elephant, has over time fizzled out in the memories of Kenyans who were largely its customers, but the question on who caused the fire that razed down Nakumatt Downtown supermarket on January 28, 2009, remained answered.

For eight years, the court inquired from 31 witnesses on the circumstances leading to the deaths, including an unborn child and its mother, who were burnt beyond recognition.

At the end of the inquest, Chief Magistrate Francis Andayi singled out no one to bear the wrath of the law for the deaths.

“I find there is no evidence to suggest this fire was deliberately lit… I find that the fire was accidental and not deliberate. No offense has been shown to have been committed by a person known or unknown in the circumstances of this case in relation to the deaths that occurred at the supermarket,” ruled Mr Andayi.

He ruled out electric power surge as the cause of the fire. Although some of the witnesses who were Nakumatt’s former employees testified that the power kept going on and off, the court was of the view that there was a smooth change-over from the diesel generator to the then Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) service.

The downtown building known as Woolworths was owned by a Mr Patel. Nakumatt had leased the building for 20 years from 1995. The branch had three access points, two on Kimathi street and one on Kimathi lane, which was also the receiving area.

Nakumatt was on ground and first floor of the building.

The inquiry revealed that at the location of the generator, which was suspected to be the culprit, gas cylinders that had been placed on the staircase and inadequate water nearby and from Nairobi County Government, as well as missing smoke alarm system, worsened the situation.

Andayi was of the view that based on testimonies by 31 witnesses, the generator’s room was inside the building. According to him, if it had been installed outside, the disaster could not have happened, and if it did, the number of casualties would have been less.

Following this observation, he recommended that buildings should not have power generators within and should not be placed near inflammable items.

The fire developed rapidly and so much that it overwhelmed those who were trying to put it off. They all ran for safety.

This situation led to a scene of darkness, heat, and confusion inside the supermarket, with so many people trying to get a way to escape.

There was a staircase from the ground to the first floor. In case of an emergency requiring evacuation, the people on the first floor would be evacuated through the staircase to the access on Kimathi lane.

The stairs leading from the upper floor to the ground floor were inaccessible as they were engulfed in the fire exacerbated by the presence of gas cylinders that were stored there.

Fire razed down Nakumatt Downtown supermarket on January 28, 2009. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Tried to jump

Those who were upstairs tried to jump out of the building to safety through the windows and the roof. Some managed but others remained trapped inside the building, perhaps overwhelmed by smoke inhalation.

“The location of the generator within the building and the gas cylinders nearby and within the building, and on the staircase created a hazardous situation that made saving of lives on the upper floor almost impossible,” observed Andayi.

“It is recommended that a generator be located outside the building and not next to any items that are likely to cause a rapid spread of fire in case of a break-out. It is further recommended that gas cylinders, whether filled or empty, should not be stored within a supermarket or near a generator,” he said.

The magistrate also found that the defunct supermarket employees had not been trained on fire escape. He was of the view that if Nakumatt employees had been regularly taken through fire drills, then they would have helped their customers get to safety.

“If these measures had been taken, perhaps the magnitude of the disaster would have been reduced,” the magistrate said.

Those who died were trapped and consumed by the fire. The court observed that they must have been overwhelmed shortly after inhaling the smoke fumes before their bodies were burnt beyond recognition.

The cause of death in each case was 110 per cent severe burns.

Those who were called to testify included embattled Nakumatt boss Atul Shah, who was at the time in Mombasa. Shah was Nakumatt Holdings Managing Director since 1991.

He testified that the manager Downtown branch called and informed him of the incident. According to him, he called Nakumatt’s head office and nearby branches to assist.

Shah then called police and fire brigade. The court heard that at 6.30pm, Nakumatt had lost five staff members in the inferno. All five had been assigned the role of fire marshals.

Following the deadly fire, Shah testified that he was charged with negligence at Makadara Court, but was later acquitted. The second witness was Phillip Ludeo, downtown’s manager at the time. He told court that he had 103 employees, among them 10 fire-fighting men.

He narrated that the gas cylinders were kept on the first floor following consultations with the National Environment Management Authority, the defunct Municipal Council, Fire brigade, and the Ministry of Public Works.

Nakumatt, he stated, also had paint as part of its stock.

The second witness claimed that in the morning hours of the fateful day there was a bang, then a blackout that allegedly occurred on the Nation Centre side.

According to him, the generator picked up and everything seemed normal until later in the day when he heard a fire siren.

Ludeo said the fire assembly point was Jevanjee Gardens.

Sunday Nkichabe, also a former Nakumatt employee, told court the power outage happened at around 10.30am and a second one at 2.30pm. According to him, the fire broke out some minutes to 3pm.

This witness explained that when he heard a bang, he assumed it was the gas cylinders. The witness denied seeing anybody or any shopper being blocked from escaping from the supermarket.

Firefighters attempt to extinguish a fire at the Nakumatt downtown supermarket in Kenya's capital Nairobi, January 28, 2009. [Reuters]

Failure of coordination

Hellen Otieno was the fourth witness. She was working at the credit card counter. Ms Otieno stated that the fire could have been caused by a failure of coordination between KPLC power and the generator.

The court also heard from Gilbert Githima, an electrical technician who was in charge of the generator at the time. According to him, Nakumatt was using a Volvo Penta generator, which was installed in January 2009 by Ryce Engineering. “It was automatic such that if there was a power surge it would switch on automatically,” he explained.

He testified that on the fateful day, he reported on duty at around 8am and two and a half hours later there was a blackout and the generator went on.

At 12.30pm, he checked the fuel in the generator, which was 13 per cent full. According to him, there were two 200 litres metallic drums, one full and the other half full.

Githima stated that he added 40 litres to the generator using a hand pump, since the generator was still running.

“This did not pose any danger,” he said adding that he removed the pump and went to the till area.

He said it was not his decision to keep the drums of diesel fuel within the generator room.

The technician told the court that utility service power returned at 2.30pm and the system switched from the generator to the grid.

According to him, the smoke came out from the radiator duct that was connected to the generator for cooling purposes. Only hot air was supposed to come out of the duct.

He narrated that he saw milk plastic crates that were leaning on the radiator duct burn. Githima, together with some colleagues, tried to put out the fire unsuccessfully.

This witness said the fire brigade took between 15 and 30 minutes to arrive.

Duncan Kimithi, a directorate of public works officer, told the court the probable cause of the fire was fuel vapour coming into contact with the hot exhaust pipe of the generator or sparks during changeover, which got into contact with the hot exhaust pipe of the generator.

He said he could not arrive at any concrete conclusion because of the damage caused by the fire.

Another witness, Charles Mwaura, then a KPLC engineer, told court the outage had affected several places within the central business district.

He said there was an interruption due to high voltage equipment that had failed at the Nation Centre substation, is 80 meters from Nakumatt Downtown.

He, however, stated that the power interruptions were not the cause of the fire at the Nakumatt Downtown supermarket. If there was to be fire due to KPLC equipment, it would have been at the Nation Centre substation itself, he said.

Pregnant woman

One of the victims was the wife of a University of Nairobi lecturer. At the time, the court heard, she was eight months pregnant.

The lecturer learnt that they had been killed in the fire after she failed to return home. A DNA test enabled the lecturer to identify the body that had been burnt beyond recognition.

The fire also rendered a former Kenya Airforce officer disabled. Samuel Kimei told court he had gone to buy his children bicycles. “After around 20 minutes after I went to check the children’s bicycles, power started going on and off. It went off a final time and darkness engulfed the upper floor. A loud explosion followed,” narrated Kimei.

At least 30 people were killed in the fire incident.