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When Nairobi’s Sunbeam building collapsed

Sunbeam building accident, Nairobi in 1996 [File]

Yesterday's fire at city shopping complex triggered some memories of past events and how we never seem to learn as a country.

What happens when the gods of the sun disagree with the gods of the rain? Throw into the mix corruption and ineptitude and the result is death.

That is what happened on May 13, 1996, when a building named Sunbeam, which housed Sunbeam Supermarket, buckled when challenged by a downpour.

The quarrel between the gods had disastrous consequences for 35 lives were cut short when the building collapsed. There was a national outcry and the government appointed a commission on December 19, 1996 to look into how similar disasters can be avoided in future.

The commission was led Dr Reuben Mutiso assisted by Justice Sara Odeyo, J.J Gathara, Denis Rimber, Kenneth Kiplagat, John Cavanah, Otieno Odongo, Abdi Osman. The joint secretaries were Dan Ameyo and A Bashir.

Initially, everything from wind, thunder, rain and the sun were blamed for the collapse of the building, which was built in 1991.

When the commission released its report, the gods of wind, rain, thunder, lightning and electricity were exonerated.

“Wind force on a weak and deteriorated structure was eliminated as this is a low building within much taller buildings and trees. These would act as wind breakers. Lightning was eliminated since it would have manifested itself in a different and precise way. Thunder causing shaking and eventual collapse was also eliminated because on May 13, 1996 there was no extraordinary thunder,” reads part of the report.

The experts concluded that tinkering with the original designs compounded by poor maintenance, contributed to the collapse.

And although members of the commission went as far as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia in search of answers and eventually penned a 209-page report, suggesting a wide range of solutions, contractors have continued building death traps.

Ten years later, on January 28, 2009, another disaster struck when an estimated 30 people died when Nakumatt Down Town went up in flames.

It is estimated that in the last 20 years, more than 100 people have died as a result of collapsed buildings.

Apparently, the lessons learnt after Sunbeam never permeated into the country’s consciousness, and neither did cries of the victims prick the nation's conscience.